Sexual harassment allegations by colleagues have followed a Washington Regional Medical Center cardiologist for years.
Last year, WRMC suspended Dr. Soliman Mohamed Ali Soliman for a week without pay after a registered nurse, Anita Clinard of Springdale, filed a complaint accusing him of sexual harassment.
She sued him last month in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville, and she also sued WRMC for allegedly failing to warn her and other nurses of Soliman’s “long history of sexual harassment.”
Clinard is seeking damages over complaints that include gender discrimination and a hostile or abusive work enviroment. Clinard and Soliman both work at Washington Regional’s Walker Heart Institute Cardiovascular Clinic, where his specialties are cardiology and electrophysiology.
“Dr. Soliman has made unnerving sexual comments to female nurses about his greatest sexual fantasies, inappropriate jokes, intimidation through staring and body language, and has made nonconsensual physical contact with Ms. Clinard,” according to the suit, which details other examples of harassment.
Soliman’s attorney, Emily Sneddon of the Little Rock firm Mitchell Blackstock & Sneddon, said the firm typically doesn’t comment on pending litigation other “than to say our client is going to defend himself in court.”
WRMC denied Clinard’s allegations of wrongdoing in its court filing. “WRMC exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any discriminatory behavior in the workplace,” attorney G. Alan Wooten of Conner & Winters of Fayetteville said. “WRMC had in place policies and procedures to report and prevent harassment in the workplace.”
A spokeswoman for WRMC said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
In 2015, WRMC formally reprimanded Soliman after a female co-worker alleged sexual harassment, but kept the “high-profile physician at the hospital,” Clinard’s lawsuit alleges.
“It’s profits over people,” Clinard’s attorney, Tré Kitchens of the Brad Hendricks Law Firm in Little Rock, told Arkansas Business. “Some of these doctors make the hospitals tremendous amounts of money, and certain decisions are made that are business decisions as opposed to people decisions. And that’s just not acceptable in our mind.”
WRMC is one of the largest hospitals in the state ranked by net patient revenue. In 2019, it reported $441.7 million in net patient revenue and net income of $36.6 million.
Soliman’s case highlights a continued trend of nurses stepping forward to complain about sexual harassment by doctors when years ago they might have kept silent.
Typically, nurses subjected to sexual harassment by doctors don’t complain out of fear of hurting their careers, said Susan Strauss of Burnsville, Minnesota, a former nurse and consultant on workplace discrimination, harassment and bullying. She was unfamiliar with details of the allegations against Soliman.
When confronted, doctors brush away the comments as being jokes or playful interactions. “It’s not an excuse,” Strauss said. “It’s still a violation.”
If the case is investigated by the hospital, it can become a “he said, she said” situation, and hospitals typically side with the physicians, Strauss said. “The doctors have the power and the nurse doesn’t,” Strauss said.
Going Before the Board
Clinard also filed a complaint against Soliman in February 2019 with the Arkansas State Medical Board. And in a follow-up letter to the board, Clinard said three other nurses had told her that Soliman also sexually harassed them while at WRMC.
At the board’s August 2019 meeting, Soliman said, “There was a big misunderstanding. I did not do exactly what Mrs. Clinard said,” according to a recording of the proceeding provided to Arkansas Business.
He also said that he wasn’t aware of “any three other nurses.”
Soliman also said he took a course on sexual harassment in the workplace, which was required by WRMC.
Soliman told the board in August 2019 that he had “learned my lesson. I have changed a lot.” Soliman said he had been “joking and trying to be nice to the people” but learned that “actually a lot of people get offended by that.”
In his board appearance, Soliman agreed to continued monitoring by the Arkansas Medical Foundation, which treats physicians who have mental or emotional illnesses or engage in self-destructive behavior. Soliman said would do “whatever it takes” to keep his career. “I have four kids I need to raise,” he said.
Soliman has followed AMF’s guidance, said Mike Mitchell, another of Soliman’s attorneys who works at the same firm as Sneddon.
“Hopefully, that will create a different environment for him in the future,” Mitchell told Arkansas Business. “He understands to avoid these sorts of actions.”
Mitchell also said that Soliman’s actions weren’t meant to be sexual harassment.
And, after taking a weeklong boundaries course, Soliman now knows that what he thought was “innocuous touching the face or making comments could be interpreted and taken seriously by a co-worker,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also said that Soliman has learned to be “seriously careful about what you say and what you do around female co-workers.”
The first public complaint against Soliman came in 2011, when he worked in Springfield, Illinois, and saw patients at Memorial Medical Center.
A female MMC employee filed a petition for an order of protection in Sangamon County Circuit Court in Illinois. She alleged that Soliman had been stalking her for about two years. She didn’t say in her filing what her title was at MMC, but she received her registered nurse’s license in 2007.
The woman, whose name Arkansas Business has chosen not to use, wrote by hand in the April 2011 filing that Soliman showed up at her parents’ house looking for her “after repeatedly being told that he is not welcome.”
She also accused Soliman of waiting for her after work on the hospital’s grounds. “He was trying to intimidate me and followed me across the parking lot and was screaming at me” for about five to 10 minutes before she was able to leave, she wrote.
A judge entered the emergency no-contact order in April 2011, prohibiting Soliman from being around the woman. That order resulted in Soliman being unable to treat patients at the hospital.
A few months later, Soliman, through his attorney, asked the judge to modify the order so he could practice at the hospital. He said the order was creating a hardship for his patients and his physician partners and could jeopardize his employment at the hospital, the motion said.
In July 2011, the judge modified the order so that Soliman could go to MMC “for work purposes only at such times” that the woman was not there. If the woman arrived at MMC, Soliman had to leave “immediately,” according to the order.
On Nov. 30, 2011, the order was dismissed at the woman’s request.
Soliman was questioned about the incident when he appeared before the Arkansas State Medical Board in August 2019 in connection with Clinard’s complaint. He said the 2011 incident “was a big issue” between him and one of his colleagues. He insisted that he didn’t threaten her “at all.”
But the incident left him “traumatized” and he decided to leave Illinois, even though the hospital wanted him to stay, he said.
He decided to come to Arkansas.
Before Soliman started working for WRMC in 2012, the president of the medical staff at Memorial Medical Center wrote a letter on Dec. 28, 2011, that said Soliman voluntarily agreed not to practice at the Illinois hospital until the matter involving the woman was resolved. The letter is an exhibit in Clinard’s recent lawsuit against Soliman and WRMC.
“No formal action was taken against Dr. Soliman’s privileges at MMC and his voluntary agreement to refrain from practicing is not a matter that was reportable to the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation or the National Practitioner Data Bank,” Dr. J. Eric Bleyer wrote. “Dr. Soliman was very professional in his handling of this matter.”
The Illinois issue resurfaced in 2015 when a “certain female supervisory employee” at WRMC complained about Soliman’s behavior, according to the reprimand letter to Soliman from William Bradley, then WRMC’s president and CEO. That letter is also an exhibit in Clinard’s suit.
Bradley said the hospital didn’t know about the protection order until after it had finalized an employment contract with Soliman. It “was not volunteered by you during the course of your recruitment by WRMC,” Bradley said.
In his letter, Bradley reprimanded Soliman because a WRMC employee alleged that he “touched her face in an intimate, caressing manner; that on one occasion you made an attempt to kiss her on the mouth … .”
In the initial interview with WRMC, Soliman denied having tried to kiss the employee, Bradley wrote. “However, you did admit to having a ‘close relationship’ with the employee and acknowledged upon reflection that the relationship may have been inappropriate.”
Bradley said that while the allegations were “troubling” they may not be sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute sexual harassment that is actionable under the law.
Nevertheless, Bradley told Soliman that he wouldn’t get another warning and a confirmed complaint of “unwelcome or inappropriate conduct” would result in his termination.
“I strongly suggest that you refrain from touching any female within WRMC unless such contact is a necessary part of patient care,” Bradley wrote.
“You should further refrain from making any comments that could be construed to be of a sexual nature to any female within WRMC.”
Clindard kept notes on what she considered Soliman’s inappropriate conduct, according to her suit. She alleged that Soliman’s first inappropriate contact with her took place on June 28, 2017.
“Dr. Soliman approached me at my desk and began touching and caressing my face and neck,” she said in the complaint. “Then Dr. Soliman pushed my hair aside and told me how beautiful I was. He leaned in and tried to kiss me, but I pushed him away.”
Clinard said she was shocked and appalled by his actions.
During the next 18 months, Clinard recorded other encounters with Soliman where she said she felt uncomfortable. She said Soliman’s actions have created a hostile work environment, causing her to suffer from anxiety, lost sleep and panic attacks, according to her complaint.
In January 2019, Clinard filed a complaint against him with WRMC’s human resources department.
Soliman denied the allegations of wrongdoing to WRMC, according to a Jan. 30, 2019, letter to Soliman from J. Larry Shackelford, president and CEO of Washington Regional Medical System. That letter is also attached as an exhibit to Clinard’s lawsuit.
Shackelford said WRMC’s investigation hasn’t been able to substantiate the employee’s claims. “That said, I do not believe that is the end of the matter,” he wrote.
Shackelford said he was concerned that the allegation of touching a woman’s face was similar to the allegation in 2015.
He said that while the most recent complaint by itself wouldn’t lead “a reasonable person to conclude that you had engaged in behavior that warrants termination or the imposition of a serious adverse employment action,” it must be viewed against the reprimand and warning Soliman was given four years earlier.
Shackelford imposed a disciplinary action short of termination: In addition to a one-week suspension without pay, Soliman had to take a course, at his own expense, on sexual harassment in the workplace.
Once again, Soliman was warned not to have physical contact with women employees. “You may not pat, rub, or touch any female employee, period,” Shackelford wrote.
Shackelford also told Soliman that he was “an important member of the WRMC medical staff who possesses technical skills and expertise that is of great value to our community.
“But make no mistake, this is the last time I expect to ever discuss with you behavior that potentially implicates Washington Regional policy on sexual harassment.”