A legal maneuver to wrest more than 500 medical malpractice lawsuits from a stand-in Hamilton County judge has spurred a withering retort from Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and spawned a second wave of accusations that her oversight of the cases is corrupt.
The escalating dispute stems from court claims that Dr. Atiq Durrani, a surgeon who had offices in Evendale and Florence, harmed hundreds of people by performing spine surgeries that were medically unnecessary. The claims include hospitals where Durrani did the surgeries.
Durrani was arrested in 2013 on charges of billing Medicare and private insurers for millions of dollars in unnecessary surgeries. But before he stood trial, he fled to Pakistan where he operates a spine surgery practice in Lahore.
The civil lawsuits, some of which date back to 2010, are moving ahead. A Hamilton County jury returned a $1.04 million verdict in favor of one former Durrani patient. Two cases in Butler County went against the plaintiffs. Other trials were delayed by judge assignments that didn’t stick for a variety of reasons. Last August, O’Connor appointed a retired judge, Mark Schweikert, to hear the Durrani lawsuits.
Schweikert has scheduled 23 cases for trial between June 2018 and March 2019, but Matt Hammer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to disqualify O’Connor and Schweikert from further involvement. In a long affidavit, he writes that O’Connor is beholden to the medical industry because of its monetary contributions to her election campaigns. He says that she and Schweikert are “collaborating” against his clients in pre-trial rulings. He is also asking a federal judge to prevent O’Connor from ruling on his request to disqualify Schweikert.
Hogwash, O’Connor contends in her response to Hammer’s federal suit. She calls the suit “frivolous” and “meritless” and says the request is based on “unfounded allegations and speculation.” She brushed off any notion of personal bias as a result of accepting election money from health care interests.
“The complaint is riddled with plaintiffs’ and their counsel’s ‘belief’ and ‘speculation’ rather than objective truths,” she says in a memorandum filed by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. “Many of the allegations are exceedingly unprofessional. Others are incomprehensible.”
Additionally, O’Connor writes that granting Hammer’s request would “set a dangerous precedent whereby any plaintiff or defendant seeking to ‘judge shop’ could run to federal court seeking injunctive relief every time they received an unfavorable ruling in a case or did not like the judges assigned to a case by the chief justice.”
Schweikert declined to comment on the matter, says Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Administrator Patrick Dressing.
Hammer has already responded to O’Connor’s answer. In it, he suggests that the “fix” is in for the Durrani plaintiffs.
“There is ONLY one explanation: The chief justice and Judge Schweikert’s desire to come to the aide of their allies in the medical industry, even a doctor who is an indicted fleeing felon and the hospitals who looked the other way to make money from that doctor,” Hammer states.
The hostilities between O’Connor and Hammer, who works for the firm managed by suspended lawyer Eric Deters, have sucked Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters into the fray. The two Deterses are not related.
In his Dec. 15 affidavit, Hammer refers to a letter in which Hamilton County Common Pleas Presiding Judge Melba Marsh asks O’Connor to appoint a special judge to hear the Durrani cases. Although Marsh signed the Feb. 2, 2017, letter, Hammer states that a “credible witness inside the Hamilton County courts” said that the request wasn’t initiated by Marsh but by O’Connor.
O’Connor doesn’t address that point in her answer to the federal lawsuit. But after she characterized his suit as one of "unfounded allegations," Hammer disclosed that the “credible witness” was Joe Deters. A spokesman for Deters said the prosecutor had no comment. Marsh could not be reached Thursday.
Joe Deters, whose status as a part-time prosecutor allows him to take side jobs, entered the Durrani litigation picture in 2014 as co-counsel to the Deters Law Firm. Eric Deters says Joe Deters is no longer involved in the cases.
CONTACT JAMES McNAIR at [email protected], 513-914-2736 or @jmacnews on Twitter