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One Banfield complaint dismissed; another lodged

Cases involve veterinarians fired from the same Oregon clinic


August 5, 2010
By: Edie Lau
For The VIN News Service


Series
Part 2 of 3: One Banfield complaint dismissed; another lodged
A lawsuit by an ex-Banfield veterinarian in Oregon alleging unethical medical and business practices by the corporation has been dismissed, but a second veterinarian who once worked at the same clinic has a similar complaint pending before the state Bureau of Labor and Industries.

The case by Dr. Robert Nix was dismissed on July 2 by a judge in the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon in Multnomah County. The case was dismissed with prejudice — meaning it cannot be refiled — and without costs or attorney’s fees to either party.

Nix and his attorney, Mitra Shahri of Portland, would not comment on his case.

Asked whether the company paid a settlement to Nix or forged any type of agreement with the plaintiff, Banfield Chief Legal Counsel Bruce Berning provided a written response that stated only: “Dr. Nix voluntarily withdrew his allegations against Banfield. The case has been dismissed by the court.”

Company executives previously said Nix’s claims were unfounded.

Based in Portland, Banfield, The Pet Hospital, is a privately held company that owns the largest chain of pet hospitals in the world. In the United States, it operates more than 750 clinics, most of them in PetSmart stores.

One week after the Nix case was dismissed, a new complaint against Banfield was filed by Dr. Amber Esquivel making similar allegations. Esquivel and Nix worked at Banfield’s Nyberg Woods Urgent Care Center in Tualatin, Ore.; they were terminated within nine months of one another.

“Just as with the Dr. Nix lawsuit, we believe the allegations in this complaint have absolutely no merit and will be dismissed,” Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Banfield, said in the written statement to VIN News Service. “We plan to vigorously defend our practice against these claims.

“Banfield is committed to providing the best care for the pets and families we serve,” he added.

Shahri, attorney for both practitioners, said Nix and Esquivel are like-minded veterinarians who were acquainted before they began working at Nyberg Woods. Both had practiced previously in North Carolina. Shahri said Nix encouraged Esquivel to relocate to Oregon for the job at Nyberg Woods, which opened in 2007. Esquivel began working there in 2008.

Like Nix, Esquivel alleges that veterinarians and staff at Nyberg Woods were pressed by their superiors to maximize the clinic’s profits at the expense of patient care and welfare, such as by ordering frequent costly ultrasound images and by presenting the clinic as a night-time emergency-care center when it was not properly staffed and equipped to provide true emergency service.

Esquivel also alleges that she was under pressure to generate a specific amount of revenue for the clinic — $2,200 a day — but was assigned to handle a large share of free wellness exams for which clients were billed “only for vaccines and other small procedures,” and therefore was unable to meet her quota, according to the complaint.

The complaint states that Nyberg Woods struggled to retain clients and that Esquivel had to skip meal and rest breaks to cover the workload. This paradoxical situation arose because management scheduled fewer people per shift to save money, Shahri said in an interview.

By the end of 2008, according to the complaint, Esquivel had become ill from the working conditions and chronic stress. Following 60 days of medical leave, she gave Banfield notice that she would quit “unless she could be assured that their practices would change,” the complaint states. She did not receive a response, but a termination notice was placed in her employee file, according to the complaint.

Shahri said Esquivel has since returned to North Carolina. She could not be reached for comment.

Although the Nix and Esquivel complaints focused on the veterinarians’ experience at Nyberg Woods, Shahri told the VIN News Service that she believes the problem is more widespread. “I think it’s countrywide and I think it’s endemic to Banfield practices from corporate, up (and) down,” she said.

In response, Banfield lawyer Berning said: “We have no record of Miss Shahri ever being a client of Banfield. So her blanket comments regarding the quality of medicine or the service we provide our clients are baseless and reckless.”

Shahri said her office “has been bombarded with calls from former and current Banfield employees, including vets, offering their support to the claims of Miss Esquivel ... We also have a lot of consumers who, after reading the (Bureau of Labor and Industry) complaint on our website have specific information that verifies their experiences.”

Berning responded: “Banfield is proud to employ more than 2,200 veterinarians and last year we cared for more than 6 million pets. Our goal is to provide the best care for our patients and deliver an exceptional experience for clients. Miss Shahri’s comments are inconsistent with our internal investigation of Dr. Esquivel’s allegations. Dr. Esquivel’s allegations are unfounded and have no merit.”

Nix’s suit against Banfield was reported in April by The Oregonian newspaper of Portland and distributed by The Associated Press. Shahri cited reader comments posted on websites of various news organizations that published the story as further evidence of problems with Banfield clinic operations as a whole.

Berning responded: “Again, the allegations made in the Nix case were without merit and he voluntarily withdrew his complaint. As we know, not every lawsuit filed has merit; and when allegations are published, the public will hopefully reserve judgment until the true facts are known.”

Reader comments posted on oregonlive.com, the website of The Oregonian, span the spectrum. Many describe other negative experiences, but some noted having a variety of experiences at different Banfield hospitals. “Your visit really depends on your doctor and your attitude,” one wrote. Another reader commented that small privately owned practices may have problems as well.

Shahri posted her own comment directing readers to the full complaint on her firm’s website. “Any information you may have regarding any of the allegations in the complaint will be greatly appreciated,” she wrote.

In his statement, Berning said: “As with any business, Banfield does receive client complaints. We have an effective client complaint resolution program. Our client advocate team works directly with hospital teams to resolve any concerns or issues that may occur. We want all our clients and their pets to be Banfield patrons for life.”

Like the Oregonian article, a VIN News Service article on the Nix suit elicited a number of comments from members of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an international online community of veterinarians. Some readers’ sympathies were with the plaintiff; others with the employer. Many simply were curious to see how the case unfolded.

After reviewing the new complaint by Esquivel, one VIN member who works in a Banfield clinic told the VIN News Service that Esquivel’s experience with the company did not match his. “They have just encouraged me to practice the best medicine possible,” the practitioner said. However, he asked not to be identified because he said he has colleagues who view the company unfavorably.





VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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