Ex-Erlanger interim CEO paid less severance than other officials, lawyers say

Board member Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson listens during a budget and finance committee meeting in this file photo.

A high-ranking former colleague told a court Thursday that Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson was paid for unused vacation time when Erlanger hospital terminated the interim chief executive officer in summer 2013.

Moments later, the colleague, Gregg Gentry, was handed a file for another former employee, Mitchell Mutter, and asked how much the cardiologist got paid when he left Erlanger the year before.

"Six months severance pay," Gentry said, "and $225,000."

"What in the world," scoffed Jennifer Lawrence, one of two lawyers representing Woodard-Thompson in a $25 million lawsuit against the hospital. Lawrence asked Gentry again, "how much was it?"

During cross-examination Thursday, Lawrence continued to argue that Woodard-Thompson was fired more than two summers ago after she investigated a financial mishap which involved Mutter, a cardiologist who had personal relationships with members of Erlanger's board of trustees.

In her $25 million lawsuit, Woodard-Thompson, 67, said Erlanger officials passed her over for permanent CEO even though she stepped up twice as interim CEO between 2003-2004 and 2012-2013 during financial upheaval. In addition to being terminated while on medical leave in 2013, Woodard-Thompson said officials called medicine "a white man's world" amid a hasty CEO search process.

In response, Erlanger attorneys called those allegations "simply not true," and suggested during opening arguments Wednesday that Woodard-Thompson was bitter after learning she was not selected for the permanent position.

Attorney John Bode questioned Woodard-Thompson about being unemployed since she left Erlanger in spring 2013 for medical reasons. "You've not made an application since," Bode said Thursday. "Is that correct?"

Woodard-Thompson had "made some inquires," she said, and talked to people on the phone, asking if they knew anything. Otherwise, nothing formal.

photo Erlanger Health System

"It's hard to look for a job when you have to disclose that you were fired," she said. "That kind of sets some people back. And I don't want to go and do organization bashing."

Earlier this week, Lawrence painted Woodard-Thompson as a friendly, but strict leader who ensured Erlanger's compliance to federal rules. On Thursday, Lawrence elaborated on the cardiology situation that Woodard-Thompson investigated as interim CEO in spring 2012 - some of which centered on Mutter.

On a hanging screen, Lawrence pointed to a page from Gentry's workplace journal where the chief administrative officer detailed Mutter's "disruptive behavior." Mutter drew the ire of several colleagues in cardiology by redirecting patients; being verbally abuse; and shoving people against walls, Lawrence said.

Gentry said Mutter did impact employee morale and create a workplace environment that prevented Erlanger from growing its cardiology department. During his cross-examination, Gentry said he met Mutter to discuss those issues because "I wanted him to be aware what was being said about him. I wanted him to know about the conclusions Charlesetta and I were drawing."

Mutter also had "personal relationships" with Nita Shumaker and Phyllis Miller, two Erlanger trustees who conspired to remove Woodard-Thompson from the hospital, Lawrence said. On Thursday, Lawrence also called Ryan Tester - Miller's son-in-law - to the stand.

Tester, an Erlanger administrator, said he told his mother-in-law when Woodard-Thompson addressed top officials in spring 2012 about the cardiology department. Her reaction, however, was not volatile, or over the top, he said. "The only thing she indicated was she might look into that."

When Randy Wilson, another Erlanger attorney, cross-examined Tester, he emphasized how Tester attained a high-ranking position before his mother-in-law became a board member in 2010. Wilson also asked whether Tester and Mutter were social friends.

Tester said he and Mutter never had conversations outside of discussing patients, never visited each other's houses. Eventually, Wilson circled back to Tester telling his mother-in-law about the spring 2012 meeting.

"Did you have any reason to mention it to her other than her friendship with Mr. Mutter?" Wilson asked. "Was there any concern with hospital operations on your part?"

There was no intent, Tester said, other than "him being a physician and them being friends."

Contact Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. llow@zackpeterson918.