published Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Ex-CEO Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson suing Erlanger Health System for $25 million

Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson
Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson
Photo by John Rawlston.
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Thompson-Eralanger lawsuit
Thompson-Eralanger lawsuit

The former interim CEO of Erlanger Health System has filed a $25 million lawsuit claiming that she was forced out amidst elaborate political conspiracies that involved threats against her safety, hacking her computer and racial remarks.

Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson, who served for a year as Erlanger's interim CEO after former CEO Jim Brexler's ouster, is suing the hospital based on claims of retaliatory discharge, invasion of privacy and conspiracy, and violation of the Tennessee Disability Discrimination act.

As interim CEO, Woodard-Thompson earned $486,720 a year.

The suit details remarks and conversations during the hospital's CEO selection process, including the claim that several top hospital officials -- including a former chief of staff -- said that "medicine is a white man's world."

"What I want people to know is that this is not about Charlesetta, and this is not about money," Woodard-Thompson said Wednesday.

"This is about trying to ensure that Erlanger Health Center survives and provides the best care for the people we serve," she said. "We have a group of people at the hospital who are more interested in their personal gain than they are in the health of the people in this region."

WOODARD-THOMPSON AND ERLANGER

* June 1992 -- Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson joins the staff at Erlanger.

* March 2003 -- Woodard-Thompson, chief of human resources, is appointed interim CEO after Dennis Pettigrew resigns. She holds the position until Jim Brexler is hired as CEO in 2004. She then becomes senior vice president and chief operating officer.

* November 2011 -- Trustees appoint Woodard-Thompson to be interim CEO after Brexler resigns.

* December 2012 -- Physicians and community members speak at Erlanger's board meeting in support of Woodard-Thompson after she is cut from the CEO short list.

* February 2013 -- Trustees vote to appoint Kevin Spiegel as CEO.

* April 2013 -- Woodard-Thompson goes on paid leave.

* June 2013 -- Woodard-Thompson is informed by letter that she has been terminated.

* July 24, 2013 -- Woodard-Thompson sues Erlanger for $25 million.

Source: Erlanger Health System, Times Free Press archives

In the suit, attorney, Jennifer Lawrence claims that as interim CEO, Woodard-Thompson "experienced an array of strange and alarming happenings." Among them were several Erlanger officials advising her to learn to shoot a gun and to have a security guard escort her to and from her car at the hospital.

She claims certain Board of Trustees members and employees with the University of Tennessee College of Medicine conspired to have her removed from her CEO position "for multiple reasons, including their desire to obtain control of Erlanger Health System's dollars by UTCOM Board members."

Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles said Woodard-Thompson was offered a severance benefit equal to 12 months' pay, with benefit totaling about $486,000.

"Erlanger feels this offer is both fair and generous, and consistent with severance packages provided to other senior executives under similar circumstances," she said in a statement.

"Accepting Ms. Woodard-Thompson's current demand of $25 million, which is the equivalent to 50 times the severance benefit offered, or 50 years of base pay, would, in our opinion, be financially irresponsible from the perspective of both the Erlanger Health System and the citizens of our community.

"While our policy is not to comment on pending litigation, Erlanger is confident that its decisions with respect to Ms. Woodard-Thompson's employment were both appropriate and justified under the law," Charles said.

PASSED OVER

Woodard-Thompson was with the hospital for 21 years. She served as interim CEO twice and held positions as chief of human resources and chief operating officer.

When she was named interim CEO after Dennis Pettigrew's departure in 2003, she was the first woman to serve in the position.

After Jim Brexler left in 2007, she held the CEO job as interim for a year and applied for the permanent position.

Despite a public show of support from physicians, she did not make the short list of candidates.

"At the meeting, a Board of Trustees member acknowledged that most of the board members had not even met the candidates," the lawsuit states.

Tennessee state legislators expressed concern about a rushed hiring process while they pushed through a bill to restructure the hospital board. The Hamilton County Commission refused to approve changes to the board.

During the controversy, Woodard-Thompson said colleagues expressed concerns about her safety, encouraging her to learn to shoot, to have a security escort and to place her vehicle in an undisclosed location. She followed the advice, she said.

Woodard-Thompson also claims that during this period, Erlanger's in-house attorney, Dale Hetzler, admitted to her and another hospital executive that he accessed her email accounts and electronic data at the request of certain members of the hospital's board.

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Does Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson deserve severance pay from Erlanger?

Woodard-Thompson also claims that Hetzler gained access to her computer and removed or deleted private and personal file. When the actions were discovered, Woodard-Thompson said, the board terminated Hetzler.

Earlier this year, hospital officials reported that Hetzler had resigned.

Hospital trustees hired Kevin Spiegel for Erlanger's top post earlier this year.

"Since Spiegel's hiring, certain Erlanger Board members have openly bragged about the undermining maneuvers they executed to thwart [Woodard-Thompson]'s career advancement," the lawsuit states.

SUDDEN TERMINATION

Woodard-Thompson went on paid medical leave after Spiegel's arrival. She planned to have a medical procedure completed before making a final decision about retirement.

"[Woodard-Thompson] was assured by Erlanger officials that they would put her health first," the suit claims.

But in June, she received a letter stating that "your former position with Erlanger had been eliminated in last year's restructure."

She said the alleged conspiracies to oust her were largely confined to a group, but said no hospital leaders ever took a stand to defend her.

"We're not wanting to indict all board members, but if you stand by and watch wrong being done like this and you say nothing, you're just as guilty as if you participated," she said.

LAWSUIT DEMANDS

The suit demands back pay, front pay, employment benefits and "incorrect pay" during her CEO position, along with damages for invasion of privacy, conspiracies, interference with her contract and for "public humiliation and lasting impact of character assassination."

Hospital officials said earlier this month they had several conversations with Woodard-Thompson about a severance package. She said the conversations were to no avail.

"I could have taken a fat check and walked quietly away. I haven't taken one single penny," she said. "What I want is for Chattanooga to be better. We've got to take care of the people who can afford it and the people who can't. We have people who are only interested in lining their pockets, and not interested in health care for the valley, or what's happening to our employees or our physicians."

When asked about the $25 million demand, Woodard-Thompson said, "Sometimes people don't hear you unless you make a substantial statement."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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