A Virginia Commonwealth University doctor has filed a $15 million defamation suit against four colleagues and the VCU Health System’s physician group after his lawyers say he suffered retaliation when he raised concerns about insufficient heart care for chemotherapy patients.
Tiziano Scarabelli claims colleagues “embarked on a campaign to defame and discredit” him with attacks on his professional conduct and false sexual misconduct allegations.
The suit, filed July 19 in Richmond City Circuit Court, lays out a series of statements that Scarabelli’s lawyers argue were malicious, meaning they were “made with knowledge of their falsity or made so recklessly as to amount to a willful disregard of the truth.”
According to the suit, Scarabelli started working for MCV Associated Physicians, which is VCU’s physician practice group, in June 2017. In his work as director of the cardio-oncology section of the cardiology division in the Department of Internal Medicine, the suit says, he found that physicians were not monitoring cardiac function in patients during and after treatment with chemotherapy medication that came with potential risks to patients’ heart health. The lawsuit doesn’t mention any patients whose health was harmed from the lack of monitoring.
In an email Friday, Pamela DiSalvo Lepley, VCU’s vice president for university relations, said, “We have no comment on the pending litigation beyond stating we vigorously deny the allegations and will defend our actions accordingly.”
Scarabelli claims he questioned why doctors were not monitoring patients in real time — not just prior to treatment. The suit claims VCU Health System did not want to adopt the practices due to potential liability concerns associated with changing procedures and that Scarabelli encountered resistance from colleagues concerned with whether insurance would cover cardiotoxicity monitoring.
The suit describes emails between colleagues in November 2017 allegedly about complaints over Scarabelli “criticizing other MDs in front of patients.” These emails, the suit claims, also described Scarabelli as “unnecessarily argumentative about issues” and raised an allegation of sexual misconduct.
Kenneth Ellenbogen, chair of the division of cardiology, allegedly said in a group email that he observed uncomfortable “touching” by Scarabelli, including stroking Ellenbogen’s knee — a claim Scarabelli’s suit says was false and “intended to cast [Scarabelli] as sexually inappropriate with Dr. Ellenbogen and other staff members.”
The suit claims that discussions about removing Scarabelli from medical practice started in November 2017, the same month he was told of sexual harassment complaints. Steps were being taken to fire him without investigating charges made against him, the suit claims. The defendants, the suit alleges, actively solicited negative information about Scarabelli to support a previously made decision.
“Ignoring the fact that their ‘witch-hunt’ revealed no evidence which would support the planned removal action, Defendants decided to frame the previously made decision to remove Dr. Scarabelli as a ‘cause’ based termination — when no ‘cause’ basis existed,” the suit reads.
Allegations of inappropriate behavior and sexual misconduct toward staff were described in a Jan. 1 memo from Stephanie Call, the program director for the internal medicine residency program, to John Nestler, chair of the department of internal medicine, the suit says. However, the suit claims Nestler had solicited this memo and that an investigator with VCU Health System and MCV Associated Physicians ultimately did not find evidence of the alleged behavior or Title IX violations to justify firing Scarabelli.
In January, the suit says, Scarabelli was suspended from his job and eventually placed on administrative leave and removed from clinical duties. The suit claims a Title IX investigation cleared him of the charges in February when it determined there had been no complaints of sexual misconduct, although he did not receive a report notifying him of this, which the suit says was in violation of adopted policies.
The suit alleges that even though the investigation did not find evidence to warrant a “for cause” termination of Scarabelli’s employment, he was notified in March that his contract with MCV Associated Physicians would end June 30 and his contract with the VCU School of Medicine would end Sept. 30.
Scarabelli claims the defendants have refused to reinstate him, which the suit argues has had the effect of reaffirming false allegations and damaging his reputation.
The suit alleges that leaders at VCU have conveyed an impression to staff members that Scarabelli was fired for cause and that members of the larger medical community have noticed his absence.
Antonio Abbate, vice chair of the cardiology division; Call; Ellenbogen; and Nestler are named as defendants in the suit, along with MCV Associated Physicians. None of the individual physicians returned requests for comment Friday.
Scarabelli’s suit asks the court to award him $5 million in non-economic compensatory damages, $10 million for economic damages to his past and future loss of earnings and $350,000 in punitive damages.
Richmond-based attorneys Harris D. Butler III and Paul M. Falabella, of the Butler Royals law firm, and Debra D. Corcoran are representing Scarabelli, according to the suit.
The lawsuit demands a trial by jury.