A former employee who sued a prominent Des Moines plastic surgeon has dismissed her lawsuit before trial, but an emergency order from the Iowa Board of Medicine means more legal trouble for Dr. Ronald Bergman.
The dismissal by Peggy West came as the state board prepares to hold a hearing on Bergman’s fitness to continue practicing medicine. The board’s concern arises from concerns that Bergman, who is 74, might have a neurologic impairment making him unfit to practice medicine. The board suspended Bergman’s medical license on Dec. 16, and it remains suspended, according to online records.
West worked for three months in 2019 for Dr. Ronald Bergman as practice administrator for Bergman Folkers Plastic Surgery, a practice housed in a landmark mansion on Grand Avenue. She alleged that Bergman, now 74, created a workplace rife with sexual harassment for her and other female employees.
West also objected to his billing practices, which she told him violated federal law, and later won a substantial payout in a settlement Bergman paid after she filed a suit claiming he overbilled Medicare and Medicaid.
After she left, she alleged, he filed false police reports accusing her of theft, resulting in swiftly dismissed criminal charges against her.
From 2021:Prominent Iowa surgeon accused of inflicting vulgar insults, crude sex talk on women in office
West’s sexual harassment lawsuit is one of at least three filed against him by former female employees. It had been set for trial in early January, but was postponed late last year.
On Friday, West’s attorney filed to dismiss the case with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled. West had previously dismissed additional claims against Polk County and Bergman’s girlfriend, a Polk County sheriff’s deputy.
Such dismissal filings by plaintiffs often follow out-of-court settlements, but West’s attorneys declined to comment, and attorneys for Bergman did not respond to messages from the Des Moines Register. Bergman in the past has denied all claims of misconduct.
State board: Bergman refused assessment
Bergman’s communications have also been chastised by the State Board, which fined Bergman $2,500 last year for “inappropriate text messages to an employee.” But that citation was packaged with a settlement addressing the board’s finding that Bergman suffers from hand tremors that would interfere with his ability to safely conduct surgery.
Under the deal, finalized in June 2022, Bergman agreed to limit his practice to certain procedures, allow a Board observer to monitor some of his work, and undergo a full neuropsychological evaluation.
That last provision is what led to the December emergency order. According to the Board, Bergman communicated through his attorney in November that he would not be completing the required evaluation. The Board responded by suspending his license.
“It is not safe for (Bergman) to continue to practice medicine until this matter is resolved,” the order states.
Lawsuit: A workplace rife with sexual misconduct
West said in her suit that during her employment, she heard Bergman regularly make sexual comments to and about women in the office, including her. She said he showed her obscene photos of himself and his girlfriend. After a party for staff, she alleged, she heard him tell a young female employee, “I like your dress! I would like to bend you over an exam table.”
The tipping point for Bergman was when the practice received notice of a sexual harassment complaint from a former employee, leading to her resignation, according to the lawsuit.
More:Lawsuit accuses one-time minister at West Des Moines church of sexual misconduct during counseling
After resignation, retaliation
Months after she left the practice, West said in her suit, she was contacted by the Iowa Board of Medicine and cooperated in an investigation then underway. After Bergman learned of it, she alleged, he and his girlfriend conspired to retaliate against her. Bergman filed police reports in January 2020 accusing her West of forgery and stealing more than $4,000 from the practice.
The Polk County Attorney’s Office dropped the charges later that year, and a prosecutor wrote in court filings that the office was looking into “allegations of retaliatory reporting for prosecution.”
From October:Iowa auditor candidate Todd Halbur wins $1 million in whistleblower lawsuit against state
Billing fraud claims cost $800,000
During her brief employment, West said in the suit, she also repeatedly confronted Bergman about his billing practices, including submitting bills to Medicare and Medicaid that exaggerated the procedures performed or overbilled for services provided by trainee physicians or physician assistants instead of by Bergman himself.
Bergman threatened that his girlfriend knew officials who could retaliate against her, and that he knew people in the “Mexican mafia” who “could make people disappear,” according to court filings.
After resigning, West sued Bergman for billing fraud using a federal law allowing people to bring suits on behalf of the government and, if successful, receive a cut of any subsequent award. Bergman in October 2022 paid $800,000 to settle the case, of which West received $200,000. Bergman, through his attorneys, denied any misconduct.
For subscribers:Plastic surgeon sued for sexual misconduct settles Medicare/Medicaid fraud claims for $800K
Other suits against Ronald Bergman
Still active against Berman is a suit filed by Rhonda Swanson, a former administrative assistant, which accuses him of harassment, unpaid wages and age and sex discrimination.
Swanson’s complaint echoes many details of West’s lawsuit, including Bergman’s offensive comments and sharing of inappropriate photos, as well as the ominous comments about ties to the Mexican mafia. In addition Swanson, who is in her 50s, claims Bergman refused to train her for some job duties because of her age, saying he wanted a “young fresh look for his business.”
Her lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in May 2024..
The third lawsuit was by a doctor, Suzanne Kuhnen, who completed part of her plastic surgery fellowship at Bergman’s practice. She also alleged Bergman made sexually inappropriate comments and said she and other doctors at the clinic for fellowships were alternately overworked or denied access to patients, and also were denied training and supervision Bergman was contractually obligated to provide.
After Bergman learned Kuhnen had complained to her fellowship supervisor at Mercy Hospital, he tried to block her from graduating from the program in retaliation, and later publicly disparaged and professionally undermined her despite a non-disparagement agreement between them, according to her complaint.
That lawsuit, which named Mercy as well as Bergman and his partner Dr. Bryan Folkers, was filed in February 2020 and dismissed by Kuhnen in May 2022.
William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at email@example.com, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.