Erlanger and former CEO settle wrongful-termination lawsuit

Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson, former two-time interim chief executive officer, will receive $600,000 in her wrongful termination suit from Erlanger hospital.

A former Erlanger executive will get $600,000 to settle the wrongful-termination lawsuit she filed against the hospital more than two years ago.

The $900,000 agreement grants Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson $480,000 for "compensatory and other non-wage items"; $120,000 for three months' wages; and $300,000 for her legal counsel, Lawrence & Lawrence, according to Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles.

"This settlement is comparable to what Erlanger had agreed to pay Ms. Woodard-Thompson more than two years ago, but was refused by her at that time," Charles wrote in a news release.

After she was terminated while on medical leave in summer 2013, Woodard-Thompson filed the $25 million lawsuit, alleging she had "experienced an array of strange and alarming happenings" as interim hospital CEO.

Woodard-Thompson, 67, said she was the target of racial remarks, safety threats and email hacks by the hospital's then-attorney, then unfairly passed over for the permanent CEO position in 2012. Twice she had served as interim, between 2003-2004 and 2012-2013.

Erlanger called her allegations "simply not true" two years ago, and suggested during opening arguments that Woodard-Thompson was bitter and bruised after not being selected as the permanent CEO.

The settlement is not an admission of any legal liability by Erlanger related to Woodard-Thompson's employment or firing. According to Erlanger's news release, the hospital is "confident that its actions in this matter were appropriate and justified and would have been confirmed by the court."

Woodard-Thompson and her lawyer, Jennifer Lawrence, both declined to comment on the settlement.

Lawrence had argued that Erlanger trustees conspired to oust the former interim CEO after she investigated a number of internal conflicts in spring 2012 related to Mitchell Mutter, then a prominent cardiologist.

Some of those trustees, Nita Shumaker and Phyllis Miller, had "personal relationships" with Mutter, Lawrence contended, which resulted in Woodard-Thompson suffering embarrassment from an organization she served for two decades. And while former colleagues like Mutter had lucrative severance agreements, Woodard-Thompson was paid only for unused vacation time, Lawrence said.

Records show a pattern of former Erlanger executives receiving six-figure severance packages: CEO Jim Brexler, $728,000; CEO Dennis Pettigrew, $131,000; CEO Sylvester "Skip" Reeder, $516,000 over two years; and chief legal officer Dale Hetzler, $229,510.

In the news release, Erlanger defended its trustees, expressing support for Miller, Shumaker, and Ron Loving, another board member associated with the CEO search.

"Throughout their years on the board," Charles wrote, "they have shown exceptional leadership, character and integrity, and have been instrumental in the effective governance of Erlanger."

The settlement follows advice from Erlanger's insurer, which will contribute money to the settlement.

photo Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson of Erlanger Health System talks to the Times Free Press during a 2012 meeting.

After starting last week, the trial went four days. On Tuesday, jurors filed into Judge Neil Thomas's courtroom around 9:30 a.m. While greeting the panel, Thomas said lawyers had worked overtime to settle the case, which was projected to span another two weeks.

"I want to thank you for your service," he told jurors, then dismissed them.

Juror Billy McKillop said the 14 members then went in a nearby room to discuss the loose ends. True to their word, he said, they didn't read any news accounts and didn't discuss the case during the previous week.

Now they wondered aloud: how much was the settlement?

Although the jury sought more details, "We felt there was definitely some unwise handling of Ms. Woodard-Thompson," said McKillop, a 55-year-old Presbyterian minister.

Some jurors had even prepared questions for Woodard-Thompson and Gregg Gentry, a hospital administrator who testified last week against his longtime friend and mentor.

"It was brought up, sort of in passing, that there was segregation in some of the departments at Erlanger," McKillop said. "So I wanted to hear more about that. Is that true to the facts? Is that a problem?"

Others expressed curiosity about discrimination, McKillop said, because the case originally hinged on racial issues.

In her 2013 lawsuit, Woodard-Thompson alleged that top officials called medicine "a white man's world," during the CEO search. And during last week's opening arguments, Lawrence said black and white Erlanger cardiologists worked in separate departments amid Woodard-Thompson's 2012 investigation.

"I was curious to know why it was thrown out and then not addressed," McKillop said.

Throughout the trial, Lawrence also emphasized Woodard-Thompson's reputation for "truth and veracity," McKillop said. But was it enough?

It's a good thing to be known for, McKillop said. "But it may cause you to suffer sometimes."

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