Former chief medical officer sues county for discrimination

Dr Nick Yphantides, San Diego County’s first chief medical officer, sues his former employer, saying discrimination and retaliation were behind his dismissal earlier this year.

Known to many in the public as “Dr. Nick,” Yphantides had been one of the county’s most visible medical figures at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. But the stress of dealing with the COVID-pandemic- 19 became overwhelming and led to a mental health crisis, Yphantides said in a lawsuit. filed Wednesday in United States District Court.

Recognizing the symptoms, Yphantides says he took a four-week medical leave last October on the recommendation of his doctor. However, when he felt ready to return, he was told to take another leave or be fired, he said. Although he took the second leave, he was fired in March, according to the lawsuit.

San Diego County spokesman Michael Workman said on Wednesday the county was not commenting on pending litigation.

“From March to October of last year, I focused on issues around COVID-19 around the clock,” Yphantides, 55, said in a remote press conference Wednesday morning. “But I have to be transparent and admit that eventually the stress got overwhelming for me. I couldn’t run away. I began to suffer from overwhelming depression and anxiety. I lost my ability to sleep. And so in this situation, I did what I think any of us would tell our loved ones to do. To take a brief leave.

The lawsuit says unnamed members of the county leadership team were aware of Yphantides’ mental state, which briefly included thoughts of suicide.

At the press conference, lawyer Jenna Rangel said Yphantides wanted to return after her four-week leave, but in January executive management told her not to continue working. After seven weeks, she said she was told to take a “fitness for duty” test.

“These examinations are invasive and intense, and they are warranted only when there is objective evidence that an employee is currently unable to perform their essential duties or presently poses a danger to themselves or to others. other employees, ”she said. “Dr. Nick was neither, and the county had no objective evidence to suggest otherwise.

Rangel said Yphantides had agreed to take the exam although the county had no reason to ask. The exam was not completed and he was fired on March 22, she said.

“They threw him out because of his disability and because it took a long time to cure him, and that can’t last,” Rangel said.

Yphantides said it was clear to him he was considered “damaged property” when he tried to return, and he fears other county health workers face the same discrimination.

“If the county can shamelessly fire a high profile and influential chief medical officer like me because of the strain I have been under trying to save lives, I think it can happen to any of my colleagues. heroics who are still in the trenches serving our region, and therefore for this reason, I have decided to take legal action and hold the county accountable, ”he said.

Yphantides legal team attorney Greg Klawitter said the county violated laws that allow workers to take mental illness leave.

“These laws do not force us to choose between our health and our livelihood,” he said. “And these laws don’t allow employers to stigmatize employees with mental or physical disabilities and throw them away like a broken object. But San Diego County broke those laws with Dr. Nick, and he did so without the slightest remorse. Nine inconsolable months of giving himself entirely to the people of this county cost Dr Nick dearly, and the county leadership repaid his debt to Dr Nick by ending his career.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount to cover lost wages and benefits, damages due to emotional distress, attorney fees and other relief.

Yphantides was well known locally even before he became the county’s first chief medical officer 11 years ago. In 2001, he left his post as medical director of the Escondido Community Health Clinic to embark on a quest to lose weight. At 467 pounds, he hit the road and toured Major League Baseball parks across the country while living on protein shakes. He recounted his trip in the 2006 book, “My Big Fat Greek Diet”.

Rangel said Yphantides was a popular and heartwarming figure for many San Diego during the pandemic.

“When the world suddenly came to a halt in early 2020 due to COVID-19, Dr Nick was uniquely qualified to lead the county’s response,” she said. “I’m sure it’s hard for any of you to remember the fear, panic and uncertainty you felt in 2020, especially at the onset of the pandemic. We turned to our local leaders for comfort and advice, and Dr Nick was that heartwarming face. Not only was he the County Surgeon, but many saw him as the Compassionate Surgeon. “

Asked about his current condition, Yphantides said he was better emotionally than when he took time off last year.

“I had a few months to recover and continue to get support, medical support and psychological support,” he said. “I think I’m doing a lot better. It was very difficult to be sidelined, but I personally am very well placed.

Other employees sued the county over disability-related allegations.

Before workers can take legal action against their employer for any form of discrimination, whether based on race, age or disability, they must first seek permission from the California Department of Fair. Employment and Housing.

From 2015 to May 2020, the state granted 15 San Diego County employees the right to sue.

Of those 15 employees, seven employees alleged discrimination on the basis of some sort of disability, according to state records.

Of the five people who applied to sue the county but were unsuccessful during that time, three said they had been discriminated against because of a disability.

Labor attorneys noted that obtaining a right to sue letter is no assurance that the facts presented are correct or that a case will win in court.