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This Bad Boss Left a Mark on Employees — Sometimes Literally

On her first day at a new surgery center in Cullman, Ala., nurse Dana Anderson happily took a photo of her co-workers to commemorate the occasion.

Kevin Johnson, an anesthesiologist who served as the facility’s medical director, sneered at her Dorothy-style optimism: “I don’t know where you think you are, but you’re not in Kansas anymore,” said Dr. Johnson, Ms. Anderson recalled in court documents. “You and Toto need to get the f**k back where you came from.”

Over the next five-plus years, Ms. Anderson testified, the doctor would ruin many more moments at work. A part-owner of the surgery center who styled himself as “Genghis Khan,” Dr. Johnson brought guns to the workplace, bragged about his sexual prowess, and painted female employees as “whores,” “slaves,” and members of his “harem,” according to testimony.

On a communal calendar he would write a “Sex Word of the Week,” which he’d explain in detail; other times he would distribute pornography to co-workers, promote coarse nicknames, and “pole dance” in the patients’ recovery room, Ms. Anderson said in exhibits filed in court.

Staff members who resisted the hypersexual atmosphere were punished by Dr. Johnson, according to court documents — including, in some cases, by delaying anesthetic care they had requested for patients. The 6’2″ Dr. Johnson tried to force himself on the much smaller Ms. Anderson on several occasions, she testified, once by trapping her in a room at the end of a workday and demanding that she submit and “take his mark” — that is, get a tattoo that would denote sexual slavery to him.

When she refused, Ms. Anderson said in court documents, the doctor humiliated her further before releasing her to join her husband, who was waiting in the parking lot: “You’re going to get down on your hands and knees and beg your master to get out.”

Intimidated, she complied.

Kevin Johnson is our new Bad Boss of the Month.

In the end Ms. Anderson resigned, unable to handle the stress at work. Along with three other former nurses, she filed a complaint in federal court against Dr. Johnson, Surgery Center of Cullman, and associated entities, claiming a wide range of wrongdoing at both federal and state levels.

At trial in September 2017, a jury found Dr. Johnson personally liable for assault and battery and emotional cruelty against Ms. Anderson, awarding her $500,000 in damages. The jury also found Surgical Care Affiliates, LLC — the practice’s ownership — liable for the hostile work environment faced by Ms. Anderson, awarding her a further $500,000, an amount later reduced by the judge to $300,000.

Ms. Anderson’s claims were the only ones to reach trial. Two of the other plaintiffs, Kari Walker and Belinda Beverly, negotiated judgments in the amounts of $450,000 and $187,500 plus attorney fees, respectively, while Kathy Lackey’s claims were rejected before trial by the judge. (Ms. Lackey has filed an appeal.)

During court proceedings the married Dr. Johnson admitted having affairs with several employees, including Ms. Walker, but denied demanding “master/slave” relationships or — as Ms. Anderson had testified — requiring tattoos “marking” women as his. He admitted in a deposition that he paid for a tattoo for Ms. Walker, however, and also that he brought guns to work and wrote sex-related words on the calendar.

He noted that he sometimes wrote Bible verses there, too.

On critical legal matters such as abuse and battery, Dr. Johnson said in testimony, Ms. Anderson and the other nurses were “lying,” a conclusion rejected by the jury. Overall, court documents paint a vivid picture of a facility overseen by, in the words of one filing, a “perverse, misogynistic, and domineering abuse[r] of women.”

Dr. Johnson’s bad behavior was a holdover from his previous job at Woodland Medical Center, also in Cullman, according to testimony from Ms. Walker, who had worked there as a surgical nurse. Dr. Johnson openly watched pornography in his Woodland office, Ms. Walker said in documents, and often would invite female employees to join him.

In an affidavit, an obstetrician at Woodland also described Dr. Johnson’s pornography habit and said he witnessed his colleague in other inappropriate acts, including ushering a nurse into a delivery room for sex. One Woodland nurse — not Ms. Walker — told the obstetrician that Dr. Johnson had paid for her to get a tattoo of a devil with its tail pointing towards her crotch, the obstetrician said in the document.

While at Woodland Dr. Johnson also harassed the obstetrician’s daughter, who worked there as a nurse, eventually causing her to quit, according to the obstetrician’s affidavit. After the daughter filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the obstetrician said in the statement, Dr. Johnson threatened to burn down the family’s house.

(In his deposition, Dr. Johnson said the EEOC complaint was a trumped-up response to his reporting of the obstetrician for drug abuse.)

Dr. Johnson’s behavior didn’t improve after he left Woodland to open the new Surgery Center of Cullman, Ms. Anderson told the court: Not only did he still watch pornography at work, he burned extreme porn onto CDs that he handed out “like candy” to staff members, she recalled in notes filed as an exhibit in the case.

In private Dr. Johnson could be sympathetic, Ms. Anderson said in a court document: At times he commiserated and offered her counsel on her difficult marriage, for instance. But he also betrayed such confidences to torment her in front of colleagues, she added, and used her vulnerability as fodder for cruel mind games.

At one point, she said in a deposition, Dr. Johnson texted her a risqué photo of himself and “ordered” her to share a revealing photo in return — something that she resisted but ultimately felt forced to do. Another day, when she became emotional about her marriage, he showed her videos of people committing suicide and said, “Sometimes, there’s only one thing left to do,” she told the court.

The doctor also abused her physically, Ms. Anderson testified. While she was on the phone with a patient, she said in a deposition, Dr. Johnson came up behind her and began choking her so hard that she couldn’t breathe or talk.

“I was frozen with fear,” she said in the deposition.

On a different day, Ms. Anderson testified, Dr. Johnson seemed to overhear her saying something that displeased him and — as he walked by her desk — kicked her hard enough to raise a bruise.

(Dr. Johnson, in a deposition, denied both incidents. Indeed, he asserted, the entire case “has been a lie from the very beginning.”)

After receiving a series of anonymous harassment complaints about Dr. Johnson via a hotline, the Surgery Center’s human resources manager interviewed several of the nurses, including Ms. Anderson. But Gregory Windham, the facility’s managing partner, concluded that nothing had been proved.

“You got three or four little girls here who have all gotten together and decided that they’ve got all these accusations,” Dr. Windham said in a deposition. “You know, it’s a he said/she said.”

Persistent complaints prompted another investigation, however, and Ms. Anderson was interviewed again. Afterward Dr. Johnson approached her and mimed shooting her with an imaginary gun, she told the court. The gesture resonated: In his deposition, Dr. Johnson said he had brought real guns into work on several occasions — and estimated that he owns three AR-15 rifles, “five to six” shotguns, and around eight pistols, including a Glock pistol that he keeps in his car.

The doctor also began tapping his fingernails ominously when he was near Ms. Anderson, she said in documents, aiming to unnerve her. Such drumming is often called the devil’s tattoo.

Around this time, Ms. Anderson and her co-plaintiffs upped the ante with a complaint to the EEOC. The Surgery Center’s board asked Dr. Johnson to step down as medical director and to take a leave of absence, according to court documents — a two-month period during which he went to Kansas for psychotherapy, he said in his deposition.

Dr. Johnson described the leave as “a wonderful experience,” after which he returned to work.

Ms. Anderson, meanwhile, was suffering from anxiety attacks, stress, depression, and loss of sleep, she testified. After Dr. Johnson returned, she told the court, she could “barely function” in her job and took medical leave to seek care and counseling; she later resigned without returning to work.

Ms. Anderson filed a second EEOC complaint and, shortly afterward, joined her three co-plaintiffs to seek justice in federal court. She got a new job at a surgery center in nearby Decatur.

Ms. Anderson, Ms. Walker, and Ms. Beverly all now have judgments in their favor, but their case remains in post-trial motions — in part, concerning how much they should be awarded in legal fees. Ms. Lackey’s appeal proceeds on a separate track, while Dr. Johnson has asked the judge to undo Ms. Anderson’s jury verdict.

» Read the second amended complaint from the four nurses
» Read brief excerpts from Dr. Johnson’s deposition about tattoos and guns

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Anderson v. Surgery Center of Cullman, Inc. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

During this case, Ms. Anderson and her co-plaintiffs were represented by Haynes & Haynes, P.C.

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