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Geldzahler v. New York Medical College

October 30, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Peck, United States Magistrate Judge


Pro se plaintiff Dr. Gerald Geldzahler brings this action against New York Medical College ("NYMC"), Dr. Joseph Morales and Dr. Jay Phillip Goldsmith. (Dkt. No. 1: Compl.) While the complaint includes a detailed "Statement of Claim" fact section, it does not state any legal grounds for relief. (Compl. Ex.: Statement of Claim.) The Statement of Claim, however, repeatedly alleges that defendants' actions were "dangerous to the public." (Statement of Claim at 1-3.) Dr. Geldzahler's "Civil Cover Sheet" lists the "NY Whistleblower Statute" and "Common Law Claims" of "Bre[a]ch of Contract [and] Unlawful Termination & retaliation" as "cause[s] of action." (Dkt. No. 15: Geldzahler Opp. Aff. Ex. A: Civil Cover Sheet.)

Presently before the Court is defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Dkt. No. 9: Defs. Notice of Motion), on the ground that Dr. Geldzahler's breach of contract and wrongful termination claims are "barred by the doctrine of at-will employment" (Dkt. No. 11: Defs. Br. at 2-3). In a footnote, the defendants also maintain that, to the extent that Geldzahler's complaint claims that defendants violated New York's whistleblower statute, N.Y. Labor Law §§ 740 or 741, that claim cannot survive because Dr. Geldzahler only alleges that defendants "failed to adhere to education standards issued by CODA, a private accreditation body," but does not "allege a violation of law, rule or regulation." (Defs. Br. at 3 n.1.)

The parties have consented to decision of this case by a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Dkt. No. 14.)

For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 9) is GRANTED as to Dr. Geldzahler's breach of contract and wrongful discharge claims and DENIED as to his New York Labor Law §§ 740 and 741 claims.


The facts alleged in Dr. Geldzahler's complaint are assumed to be true for purposes of this motion, and will be set forth herein without use of the preamble " Dr. Geldzahler alleges."

In 2001, NYMC Chairman of Dental Medicine and Chief of Dental Service Dr. Joseph Morales offered Dr. Geldzahler a position as the director of the NYMC Oral and Maxillofacial ("OMS") Residency program (the "Program"). (Dkt. No. 1: Compl. Ex.: Statement of Claim at 1.) The Program was in "dire need [of] a board certified, full-time program director" because the Program "was in jeopardy of losing accreditation" with the Council on Dental Accreditation ("CODA") of the American Dental Association ("ADA"). (Dkt. No. 15: Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 2.) NYMC "promised" Dr. Geldzahler that "as a board certified Oral and Maxillofacial surgeon, [he] would be the single responsible individual to direct the program, and [would be] given a 'free hand' to develop the goals and objective of this educational program." (Statement of Claim at 1; Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 2.)

Geldzahler began as Director on June 1, 2001. (Statement of Claim at 1.)

The job entailed directing resident education, operating on patients as well as supervising residents who were operating on patients on a daily basis, lecturing, and administrative duties, which included supervising teaching staff, selecting residents, maintaining appropriate records and program statistics and assuring that the educational process met the standards of the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) of the American Dental Association (ADA), the accrediting body for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Residency programs nationwide.

[His] responsibilities extended to residents who worked at three New York hospitals: the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, NY, and Metropolitan Hospital and St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center in Manhattan. (Statement of Claim at 1.) Although Dr. Geldzahler spent the majority of his time at Westchester Medical Center, he spent one-third of his time at NYMC. (Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 2.)

"Soon after being hired," Dr. Geldzahler realized that the NYMC dentistry department was "focused on economic growth, and not on education." (Statement of Claim at 1; see Geldzahler Opp. Aff. Ex. I: Morales 12/16/04, 3/14/06 & 8/17/06 E-Mails.) For example, Dr. Morales forced the residents to "see more and more patients in the clinic, and to schedule a growing number of patients for the operating room and for general anesthesia, seeing that these cases paid much better than dental procedures performed under local anesthesia in a dental office setting." (Statement of Claim at 1.) Many of the patients operated on and given intravenous sedation and general anesthesia "would have done as well with simple local anesthetics in a dental office setting. . . . Often the anesthesiologists would question the need for patients to undergo the risk of general anesthesia for a single tooth extraction. This indeed posed a danger to the public, since many of these procedures, driven by Dr. Morales, were unnecessary." (Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 2-3, emphasis added.) Dr. Geldzahler informed Dr. Morales that these unnecessary procedures "were dangerous to the public," but Dr. Morales "argued that clinical decisions were being made that could justify these procedures." (Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 3, emphasis added.)

First year residents performed surgical procedures in the clinic without supervision by an OMS attending, "which posed a threat to patient safety," "as the oral surgery attending was stationed in the operating room with the senior residents as necessary by hospital regulations." (Statement of Claim at 2; Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 3.) "[J]unior residents worked under 'limited permits' issued by the New York State Dept. of Education. Dr. Morales was aware of this, and desired that the residents obtain licenses as soon as possible to circumvent this need for supervision, which was mandated by New York State Education law." (Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 3.) Additionally, residents were seeing too many patients to allow the attending surgeons to supervise properly; many residents "were forced to [work] privately in the clinic to increase production." (Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 4.) One of the attending surgeons started cosigning charts with "DNSP," meaning that he "'did not see [the] patient.'" (Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 4.) "Dr. Morales drove the attending staff to keep co-signing charts for billing purposes" and "started a program for electronic signatures for attendings." (Id.) Dr. Geldzahler received many complaints from "staff" worried about their liability from the unsupervised procedures. (Id.)

Because first year residents were "stuck in the clinic," they did not get the opportunity to observe senior residents perform "advanced" surgeries in the operating room. (Statement of Claim at 1.) "These [first year] residents were being sent to St. Vincent's [Hospital] in their second year" where they had "on-call responsibilities for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery" even though they had not "received the proper prior education or exposure to advanced procedures and patient assessment," which "again put the public in danger." (Statement of Claim at 2, emphasis added.)

On "multiple occasions," Dr. Geldzahler "pointed out" to Dr. Morales that the residents were not receiving a "proper educational experience." (Statement of Claim at 2; see also Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 4.) Dr. Geldzahler notified Dr. Morales that the program was violating CODA standards that "institutional service was not to compromise resident education" and that only one "board-certified oral and maxillofacial surgeon [] was to act as program director and set the goals and objectives of the program." (Statement of Claim at 2.) Dr. Morales did not make any corrections, but instead "continued to use his position over [Dr. Geldzahler] to negate [Dr. Geldzahler's] attempts to correct the problems." (Id.)

In a meeting with Dr. Morales on October 26, 2006, Dr. Geldzahler realized that he was "just a figurehead, a full-time Program Director mandated by the CODA Standards of the ADA, but unable to really function as was mandated." (Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 4.) Upon the advice of an NYMC administrator, Dr. Geldzahler asked Dr. Morales to "sit down with the [hospital] administration and undergo mediation regarding these problems," but Dr. Morales refused. (Statement of Claim at 2; see Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 4.)

Dr. Geldzahler informed Dr. Morales that if Dr. Morales did not "resolve[] . . . these problems" by March 1, 2007, Dr. Geldzahler would make a "formal complaint to CODA." (Statement of Claim at 2; Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 4.) Dr. Geldzahler "decided to use the power of [his] position as mandated by the ADA and demanded that first year residents . . . go to the operating room and be appropriately taught and supervised." (Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 4-5.)

Two days before the "deadline," Dr. Morales told Dr. Geldzahler that he was "an employee at will" and gave Dr. Geldzahler the option of resigning or being terminated. (Statement of Claim at 2; Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 5.) In March 2007, Dr. Geldzahler received a letter from Dr. Morales informing him of his termination effective April 1, 2007, which meant that Dr. Geldzahler no longer would receive a salary or benefits. (Statement of Claim at 2; Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 5.)

Dr. Geldzahler filed a complaint with CODA claiming that: (1) "[r]esident education was being compromised by institutional service" and (2) a "single, board certified Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon was to set the educational goals and objectives of the program." (Statement of Claim at 2; Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 5 & Ex. K: Geldzahler CODA Compl.)*fn1 CODA found Dr. Geldzahler's complaints valid and noted "[a]additional violations." (Statement of Claim at 2; Geldzahler Opp. Aff. at 5 & Ex. L: CODA Preliminary Draft Report.) CODA also changed the Program's accreditation status from "accredited without reporting requirements to accredited with reporting ...

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