Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Written by By Andrea Gallo

When a D.C.-based company reneged on a contract to provide 20 international nurses to Opelousas General, the hospital sued it for fraud and won a $1.5 million judgment.

20110629-AbizOpelGen-0101
 Gachassin Law Firm’s Brandon Rhodes and Opelousas General’s Donna Copper

Opelousas General Health System brimmed with patients, stethoscopes and scrubs but thirsted for nurses in 2007 when a nursing shortage left hospitals from coast to coast dangerously understaffed. OGHS soon found what it thought would be the simple solution to its shortfall, but the answer sparked a debate over fraud and eventually became the talk of the town.

With the hospital in desperate need of 20 nurses, OGHS hired Health Management Inc., a Washington D.C.-based company that said it recruited and delivered international “well-qualified nurses in a timely and cost effective manner.” OGHS signed a contract with HMI in 2007 to deliver 20 Indian nurses during a two-year period, costing OGHS $150,000.

But after two years of HMI pushing back the nurses’ delivery dates and asking OGHS for more money, the nurses were still living oceans and continents away.

“We were appalled,” says Donna Copper, vice president of clinical operations at OGHS and director of nursing at the time HMI made its sales pitch. “We were disappointed because we signed on with them in good faith, so we were devastated and appalled.”

As HMI continued to flake on its contract, OGHS went to Gachassin Law Firm, where Nicholas Gachassin III and Brandon Rhodes worked on the case. The hospital’s lawyers initially thought they were taking on a typical contract breach, but the case turned out to be much more.

HMI claimed that a one-time allocation from Congress was the reason the company wasn’t able to deliver. Around 2005, Congress approved 50,000 visas for foreign nurses, and because it was a one-time allocation, HMI didn’t have enough foreign nurses to cover its international contracts.

As Rhodes and Gachassin tried to recoup the $150,000 for OGHS, the two discovered evidence that painted a much different and more fraudulent picture of HMI. Turns out that eight days before HMI made its sales pitch to OGHS, a U.S. State Department bulletin outlining immigrant entry into the U.S. said visas for India were unavailable. Then the day HMI’s representatives returned to D.C., they were greeted with an e-mail saying the visas were gone, proving HMI knew it could not keep its contract but trudged forward anyway.
“The ‘visas are gone’ email is really the cherry on top of the case,” Rhodes says.

Gachassin filed a federal lawsuit against HMI, accusing the company of breaching its contract and knowingly and intentionally crafting a fraudulent plan. That OGHS was relying on HMI to fix its nursing shortage added detriment and unfair trade practices to the hospital’s claims.
HMI denied the allegations, saying it was contracted to “recruit qualified international nurses,” not deliver them, which was “fully performed.” HMI counterclaimed it was entitled to an additional $150,000 from OGHS and also requested a trial by jury.

When the lawsuit went to trial in federal court in Lafayette this year, the jury awarded OGHS not just a contract refund, but also more than $800,000 for “the profit for which Opelousas General Health System has been deprived by not having received the twenty (20) international nurses” and $500,000 for fraud. The jury award, handed down in late May, totaled $1.5 million.

Gachassin and Rhodes both agree the “shining moment” happened when Rhodes cross-examined HMI’s vice president and asked her to create a chart that ended up acting as a piece of evidence against HMI.

Sunderan Moses, executive assistant at HMI, tells ABiz HMI’s international nurse recruitment program is now “on hold” due to the lack of visas. He also says HMI is no longer engaging in nurse recruitment contracts with companies.

Lawyers representing HMI, including local attorney Andrew Meyers of Breaud and Meyers, refused to comment on the case. Meyers says it is inappropriate to comment while litigation is pending (presumably a reference to the hospital’s request that HMI pay its attorneys’ fees). He would not say whether HMI will appeal the decision.

“The right thing to do would have been for [HMI] to tell the hospital visas had expired,” Gachassin says. “Instead, they chased the company and enticed them into signing a contract. If you can’t deliver on what you’re promising, then just admit it.”

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