Judge cuts jury award for the second time

Saturday, February 26th 2005, 3:34 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ For the second time, a federal judge has slashed a multimillion dollar verdict against Oklahoma Health Care Authority officials accused of abusing their power by retaliating against six rural mental health clinics.

In August 2003, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton reduced and then dismissed a jury's $34.4 million verdict and ordered a retrial in his Oklahoma City courtroom.

This week, Heaton reduced a $16.25 million verdict given by a separate jury after the retrial to $571,000. Heaton made a similar ruling as he had before, saying that most of the verdicts and awards lacked supporting evidence.

The clinics' attorney, Stephen E. Holden, said Friday that his clients plan to appeal.

``Both these juries disagreed totally with Judge Heaton,'' Holden said. ``The judge is now trying to sit as that 13th juror and make it come out the way he wants it to come out.''

The clinics claim that when they became politically active and criticized the Health Care Authority, the state agency cut their Medicaid reimbursements and denied them access to public meetings and records.

The clinics were prevented from suing the agency specifically. So clinic officials filed the lawsuit against three people with ties to the agency _ Chief Operating Officer Mike Fogarty; then-director of behavioral services, Terrie Fritz; and Dana Brown, a former agency lobbyist.

In a 36-page order, Heaton said there is insufficient evidence to show that either Fogarty or Fritz retaliated against the clinics. Further, there was no evidence the clinics were treated any differently than about 170 other private providers, Heaton ruled.

He upheld the $51,000 judgment against Brown, stating there was enough evidence for the jury to conclude the lobbyist made defamatory comments about some of the clinics' owners.

Holden said his clients are willing to continue the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

``These people have been fighting since 1999 ... and they realize how dirty it can get,'' Holden said. ``They've always realized that this is a long battle.''

Holden said one of the grounds for appeal will be that Heaton had a personal and professional relationship with an attorney who represented the defendants in the first trial. The attorney did not participate in the second trial.