Doctor's wrongful termination claims set to proceed, per federal court ruling

By Nicholas Malfitano | Mar 1, 2016

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania  

ALLENTOWN – A federal court has found a doctor’s wrongful termination claims against his former employer, a Lehighton hospital, will proceed.

Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl ruled on Wednesday that Dr. Muhamad Aly Rifai’s claims of being adversely terminated under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and for breach of contract would proceed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, while Rifai’s claims under the Right to Privacy Law, Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (PMWA) would be dismissed.

Defendants in this action are CMS Medical Care Corporation, Gnaden Huetten Memorial Hospital, and CMS’s CEO Andrew E. Harris.

CMS hired Rifai in May 2011, for a three-year term of employment at GHMH. A new contract was negotiated one year later, which saw Rifai earn a raise. Like the initial contract, it provided either Rifai or CMS could terminate the agreement by giving the other party at least 120 days’ notice of the intent to terminate, or CMS could terminate immediately for cause.

On Jan. 2, 2013, CMS, through Harris, exercised its right to terminate the employment contract by giving Rifai 120 days’ notice of its decision to terminate the contract effective May 7, 2013. Five days later, Harris notified Rifai that CMS was terminating his employment for cause, effective May 7, 2013.

Rifai filed suit, claiming the defendants fired him because of his Syrian ethnic background, his Islamic religious beliefs and the perception that he was mentally disabled, among other charges. Rifai also alleged the defendants breached his contract and privacy in the process.

“Plaintiff alleges in his amended complaint that defendants used his name and likeness in advertising that aired on public television regularly over the more than two years since the termination of his employment,” Schmehl said.

“However, an action for invasion of privacy must be commenced within two years of the violation,” Schmehl added, a time which he said began tolling with Rifai’s termination in January 2013.

This time had expired by the time of Rifai’s complaint being filed in March 2015, and these counts were dismissed.

Schmehl also found Rifai’s claims under the FLSA and PMWA for not being paid overtime for work performed on Jan. 16, Jan. 25 and Jan. 30 must be dismissed, because “he is an exempt [professional] employee to whom the minimum wage and overtime requirements do not apply.”

As to Rifai’s claims for breach of contract and wrongful termination under the ADA, Schmehl found those claims would in fact survive.

“A review of the amended complaint shows multiple breaches of the employment contract alleged by plaintiff,” Schmehl said, referring to Rifai’s charges that the defendants did not provide him with 120 days advance written notice of his termination, did not advise him of the specific reasons for cause of his termination or pay him for fringe benefits.

“I find that plaintiff has pled sufficient facts to establish a breach of contract. Accordingly, defendants’ motion to dismiss as to the breach of contract claim is denied,” Schmehl said.

As to the ADA claim, Schmehl stated Rifai had also made a valid case.

“I find that plaintiff sets forth sufficient facts to demonstrate that defendants regarded him as having an impairment,” Schmehl said, noting how Rifai’s complaint explained at the time of his termination, the defendants told various employees Rifai suffered from a mental impairment and was mentally unstable, unable to safely perform his medical duties.

“I find that plaintiff set forth sufficient allegations that defendants regarded plaintiff as having a mental disability to survive defendants’ motion to dismiss,” Schmehl said. “Further, I also find that plaintiff’s amended complaint has sufficiently pled that plaintiff’s perceived disability was the cause of his termination, an adverse employment action.”

The plaintiff is represented by Jacob M. Sitman and Gretchen Lynn Geisser of Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba, in Center Valley.

The defendants are represented by Vincent Candiello & Sarah C. Yerger of Post & Schell, in Harrisburg.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 5:15-cv-01395

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at

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