Health director’s firing called retaliation

A jury has awarded $1 million in damages to a former student health director at Arizona State University after concluding she was wrongfully fired in retaliation for blowing the whistle on preferential medical treatment given student athletes.

Thursday’s verdict came after a five-week-long courtroom gutter fight that exposed a long-standing feud between form ASU Athletic Director Charles Harris and Dr. Laurie Vollen.

“I’m very happy,” an elated Vollen said after the verdict. “For me, this is the end of a four-year nightmare.”

The $1 million verdict is to compensate Vollen for emotional distress and lost wages.

Vollen had repeatedly criticized the athletic department for giving preferential medical treatment to such revenue-producing sports as football and basketball.

After repeated conflicts with ASU, Vollen’s contract was not renewed in spring 1993.

A medical doctor who has a master’s degree in public health administration, Vollen said she’ll never practice medicine at a university again. She is working on a project to identify the victims of war atrocities in Bosnia.

“I’ll deal with evil head on,” she said. “At ASU, they play hide the ball.”

ASU attorney Ronald Lebowitz and Christine Wilkinson, ASU’s vice president for student affairs who attended most of the trail, declined to comment on the verdict.

In her lawsuit, Vollen, ASU’s student health director from 1991 to 1993, said that too many medical decisions were being inappropriately made by team trainers, coaches and outside medical doctors, and not the team physician.

He team doctor answered to Vollen.

Jurors said that their decision was very difficult and chided Lebowitz for his personal attacks on Vollen’s integrity in his closing statements.

Lebowitz said Vollen suffered from a “narcissistic personality disorder” and called her “devious,” and a “cold and calculating opportunist” who spread “lies, deceits and fantasies.”

Some of Vollen’s co-workers portrayed her in testimony as a caring professional dedicated to providing the best medical care for all students.

“He (Lebowitz) was merciless on her,” one juror said.

“I was surprised he attacked her in closings,” said Vollen’s attorney, Dan Siegel of Oakland. “It was a risky strategy.”

Despite the large financial award to Vollen, jurors said their decision was not intended to send any broad message.

“They just treated one of their employees wrongly,” one juror said.

Another juror said. “ASU has nothing to be ashamed of.”

The jurors asked to remain anonymous.

During the trial before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Anna Baca, the jury received an interesting glimpse of the medical treatment of several ASU athletes portrayed by Siegel as examples of decisions that were made in the interest of winning and not providing the best medical treatment of student athletes.

ASU head athletic trainer Perry Edinger testified that athletic department officals were constantly concerned about violating NCAA regulations and this sometimes made medical treatment decisions troublesome.

Although he had no authority to make the ultimate decisions on such matters, Edinger said he was the “first in line of evaluation” in interpreting regulations related to medical treatment.

For example, Edinger testified that in summer 1992, when then-ASU star basketball star Mario Bennett tore his knee during a pickup game while on vacation in Texas, the athletic department arranged for him to receive expensive surgery paid for by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.

When Bennett re-injured his knee nearly a year later, ASU athletic department officials agonized over whether the college’s paying for the subsequent surgery was a violation of NCAA rules since the original injury did not occur during an official practice.

In the end, ASU and NCAA officials decided that it was an allowable expense, Edinger said. But Vollen and then-team physician Stephen Zonner had criticized the athletic department for the surgeries, saying other athletes had similar treatments turned down.

Edinger admitted that he did not personally like nor did he approve of the actions of Zonner, who answered to Vollen.

“He was very demeaning to me and my peers,” Edinger said. “The students were often distressed because he gave them worst-case scenarios.”

Edinger said his concerns heightened in 1992 when he discovered that Zonner had written an out-of-season asthma medication prescription for ASU football standout Bryan Hooks. NCAA regulations do not allow universities to pay for some student-athlete medications when their sport is not in season, he said.

He discovered the prescription in a bill from a special account at a local pharmacy that was maintained for student athletes.

Edinger said Hooks was reluctant to meet with Harris after the prescription was discovered.

“Why was he afraid to see Harris?” Vollen’s attorney, Dan Siegel, asked.

“It was over another matter,” Edinger responded.

When Siegel asked what the other matter was, Edinger turned toward Baca and responded. “It’s very sensitive, do I have to answer that?”

Baca said yes.

“Well, he was concerned about his eligibility because he had just tested positive in a drug test,” Edinger said.

The positive drug test was never publicly revealed at the time, and ASU officials declined to comment on whether it was ever reported to officials with the Pac-10 or NCAA. ASU policy allows athletes to test positive twice before suspension is mandatory.

Vollen has said that relationships between the athletic department and student health deteriorated after Harris asked to delve into student-athlete records because he was displeased with the medical decisions made by Zonner and Vollen.

Vollen was unyielding because she said the records were confidential.