Cooper Clinic Sues Mercy Over Recruitment Tactics

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Dec. 2, 2013 12:00 am  

Cooper Clinic CEO Doug Babb, inset, said in letters filed in its lawsuit that the multi-specialty clinic had been in sale talks with both Mercy Health and Sparks Health System in Fort Smith in 2012.

Cooper Clinic’s frustration with Mercy Health of Chesterfield, Mo., has been simmering since Halloween 2010, when Mercy first lured away one of Cooper’s doctors.

In less than three years, Mercy, which has seven hospitals in Arkansas, including one at Fort Smith, had persuaded 14 more doctors to leave the Fort Smith multi-specialty clinic and come to work for Mercy, according to a lawsuit Cooper filed in in Sebastian County Circuit Court.

The case, filed in August, has not yet been set for trial.

Cooper’s lawsuit provides a peek inside the two health care organizations and reveals that Cooper, which has about 75 doctors and touts itself as the largest physician-owned multi-specialty group in the state, had been in sale talks with both Mercy and Sparks Health System in Fort Smith in 2012.

In the lawsuit, Cooper charges that Mercy knew that some or all of the 15 doctors were under contract with Cooper, but recruited them anyway. Cooper also is suing four of its former doctors for breach of contract for going to work for Mercy.

“The recruitment of Cooper’s physicians created problems with serving patients in primary care, specialties and subspecialties and caused harm to Cooper’s financial condition,” said the lawsuit filed by Cooper’s attorney, G. Alan Wooten of the Fayetteville firm of Conner & Winters LLP.

The lawsuit didn’t say how much money Cooper lost, but when a doctor leaves a practice, his or her patients usually follow the physician.

“Mercy’s attorneys are handling the complaint filed by Cooper Clinic,” Laura Keep, a spokeswoman for Mercy Fort Smith, said in an email to Arkansas Business. “It is our belief that Mercy has done nothing wrong and will defend itself vigorously against the allegations made by Cooper Clinic in the complaint.”

Attorney Mark Moll of Fort Smith is representing three of the doctors who left Cooper — Robert Nowlin, Donald Shows and John Werner. He declined to comment on the case but in court filings denied wrongdoing by his clients.

Attorney Barry Neal of Fort Smith, who represents the other doctor named in the lawsuit, Jennifer Elaine Burks, didn’t return a call seeking comment. He, too, told the court that Burks did nothing wrong.

Cooper didn’t provide Burks with any special training or make available any trade secrets or customer lists that she could use to gain an “unfair competitive advantage,” Neal wrote in his answer.

The Cooper Clinic is seeking unspecified damages from the doctors and Mercy Health, Mercy Clinic Fort Smith Communities and Mercy Health Fort Smith.

 

 

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