Jury awards former Navicent executive, surgeon almost $5 million in civil suit


Jason Vorhees | The Telegraph

Navicent Health, The Medical Center of Central Georgia merged with North Carolina-based Atrium Health in 2019. It is now called Atrium Health Navicent.

A Macon doctor who served in an executive role and surgeon at one local hospital while performing surgeries at another was awarded more than $5 million by a jury after his attorneys successfully argued he’d been forced out.

Dr. Fady Wanna, a cardiothoracic surgeon and former executive at Navicent Health, sued the hospital in 2017 accusing the hospital of reducing his pay, refusing to pay his benefits and changing a policy that prohibited him from also operating at Coliseum Health, Navicent’s main competitor.

The jury awarded Wanna $607,000 in damages, $1.5 million in attorneys fees plus $2.82 million in punitive damages. Jurors found the hospital acted in bad faith with specific intent to harm Wanna by misleading him by providing false information regarding his employment and benefits.

Lawyers for Navicent said in court a large award to Wanna may mean services the hospital provides as a community benefit could be eliminated.

Navicent’s legal costs for the case neared $3 million, according to estimates mentioned before closing arguments.

A spokeswoman for Navicent Health did not respond to specific inquiries from The Macon Newsroom but supplied the following statement via email: “We thank the jury and the court for their time and consideration, we respectfully disagree with the outcome of this case and are considering further legal options.”

The six-year-long legal battle is one of the largest and most complex civil cases in recent Bibb County history. A small mountain of dozens of banker boxes packed with file folders separated the doctor’s and hospital’s lawyers during a jury trial that lasted more than three weeks.

Tuesday, in closing arguments for punitive damages and attorney’s fees, Navicent’s lawyer, Robert Brennan, pleaded with the jury to award Wanna $185,630. That amount is equal to what the jury found Wanna owed Navicent for violating his employment contract.

A larger award would “devastate” the hospital and imperil community programs such as Navicent’s “Food as Medicine Market,” Brennan told jurors.

“You will be punishing a community asset,” Brennan told jurors. “Every dollar awarded against Navicent will be felt on their bottom line.”

Brennan argued that 2023 Navicent is different from the organization on trial because it has a new CEO and new executives. The hospital has since come under the organizational umbrella of North Carolina-based Atrium Health and is now called Atrium Navicent Health. Delvecchio Finley, the hospital’s current president and CEO, sat beside lawyers in court for the final two days of the trial.

Lawyer Frank Gaddy represented Wanna and said in closing arguments that Navicent is a billion dollar company with financial power and prowess with which it “tried to bury” Wanna in a “ruthless pursuit of profits at all cost.” He said hospital leaders put profits over people and equated Navicent to a bully and a shark.

“Punch it in the nose. Deter Navicent from ever doing this again,” Gaddy said.

Judge Connie Williford ruled charitable immunity did not apply to Navicent’s non-charitable assets. Charitable immunity is a legal doctrine that protects hospitals, churches and other nonprofits from liability in civil suits. The hospital had a balance of more than $200 million in an offshore account in the Cayman Islands in 2017 when the lawsuit began, according to its annual tax filings. The hospital indicated on tax forms the money is for investment and insurance purposes.

Hospital said surgeon ‘A cancer that’s metastasizing’

Wanna performed 60% of his surgery caseload at Navicent Health, and 40% at Coliseum Medical Center before the lawsuit was filed in 2017. In the six years since, both hospitals – which are direct competitors –  have changed their names and corporate structures.

Coliseum, then owned by the for-profit juggernaut Hospital Corporation of America, was sold in 2021 to Piedmont Healthcare, a Georgia nonprofit with healthcare facilities across the state.

The Medical Center, Navicent Health, merged with North Carolina-based Atrium Health in 2019. Final decisions regarding hospital operations, such as executive pay, budgets, borrowing and discharging debt, are made in Charlotte, North Carolina, by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, which does business as Atrium Health.

The two hospitals, located little more than a mile apart, are separated by the Ocmulgee River and Interstate 16.

At the heart of the legal issues are employment contracts Wanna had with Navicent Health and Health Services of Central Georgia, a physicians group that is a not-for-profit subsidiary to Navicent.

Wanna, a surgeon in the midstate since 2000, was contracted to work as Navicent’s chief clinical officer and chief operating officer in 2013. In 2014, Wanna contracted with Health Services of Central Georgia in an agreement that allowed him to be a part-time surgeon and an executive.

The 2014 contract contained a noncompete clause, but Wanna owned a private practice through which he continued operating at Coliseum Hospital, Navicent’s main competitor. Health Services of Central Georgia billed and collected for those surgeries and factored them into Wanna’s productivity bonus, according to court documents.

Wanna exceeded the average number of surgeries each month despite only operating one day of each week, court records show. Annual performance reviews for Wanna also in court records, reflect high marks from peers, reports and himself. His supervisors, including former CEO Ninfa Saunders, also noted high marks but docked Wanna for his level of “commitment,” according to court documents.

In March 2015, Navicent bought Wanna’s private practice. Several months later, in August, court records show Navicent’s former Senior Vice President for Human Resources Barnee Price told Wanna a final decision had been made to change his job description and reduce his base salary by more than 32%. Navicent lawyers told Wanna that he was being over compensated and was at risk of violating a federal law that limits how much nonprofit executives can make.

Wanna resigned from the executive role, citing the pay cut as good cause, and went back to working as a full-time surgeon.

Email exchanges among top executives at Navicent show its top executives wanted to give Wanna the boot as they began to view Wanna’s relationship with Coliseum as a threat.

In February 2016, former Navicent Vice President Susan Harris emailed Saunders and former COO Robert DiRenzo about a tip from chatter among nurses working at both hospitals. The hospital was apparently in discussions with Emory University about a partnership.

“Wanna is working closely with administration at Coliseum Cath Lab who are telling our nurses that Wanna is working closely with administration at Coliseum to get their cardiac surgery program going strong,” Harris wrote. “Looks like Coliseum is making a strong play, probably based on having Fady’s support.”

Saunders replied: “Plan?” and “We need to move fast with Emory.”

DiRenzo replied: “He’s a cancer that’s metastasizing. I agree.” and “… and kick his butt out.”

Meanwhile, the hospital still had not paid Wanna a severance, bonus or retirement contribution related to the executive role he resigned from in late 2015. Monthslong negotiations between the doctor’s and hospital’s lawyers were fruitless.

Even so, hospital lawyers told Navicent’s board of directors in a closed-door meeting in April 2016 that Wanna had been paid in full for the management incentive, bonus and benefits, according to notes from the meeting that are part of the court record. The board voted then to pay Wanna $235,000 in an “outstanding clinical bonus.”

In late October 2016, Health Services of Central Georgia announced all of the doctors it employed were required to practice “exclusively at Navicent facilities” starting Jan. 1, 2017, according to court documents. About the same time, Navicent announced it would restrict cardiothoracic surgery privileges in its facilities to only surgeons working for Health Services of Central Georgia.

The new rule, for Wanna, meant that he would immediately lose 40% of his surgery caseload if he remained employed with Navicent. If he resigned from Navicent, he would immediately lose 60% of referrals. If Wanna remained employed by Navicent but his contract was not renewed in March 2018, he stood to lose all surgery referrals.

Lawyer Anthony Cochran, who represents Wanna, said the surgeon now works in Dothan, Alabama, where the lengthy trial in Macon has delayed 18 open heart surgeries.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email [email protected].