Maryland panel accuses lawyer Stephen Snyder of seeking $50 million to keep quiet about UMMS transplant unit problems
July 17, 2020
The Maryland attorney grievance commission is seeking sanctions against well-known medical malpractice lawyer Stephen L. Snyder, alleging in a public filing that he promised to keep quiet about a patient’s death and other problems inside the University of Maryland Medical System transplant unit in exchange for up to $50 million.
The commission’s 61-page complaint levels serious accusations against Snyder, 73, while also shedding light on the secretive process of resolving major medical malpractice claims behind closed doors. And the complaint reveals a previously unknown hospital internal investigation that preceded the departure of one of UMMS’ top officials.
University of Maryland ultimately paid settlements on two cases brought by Snyder and his clients; one client was the wife of a man who died after surgery, and the other was a woman paralyzed after undergoing transplant surgery.
The attorney grievance commission contends Snyder improperly tried securing direct payments to himself through a consulting agreement with the hospital system, and had multiple conflicts of interest in his dealings with both the hospital and his clients.
Snyder’s tactics so alarmed hospital system leaders that in January 2019 — more than a year after negotiations with Snyder began — they contacted the FBI, which then surreptitiously recorded meetings Snyder had with top hospital officials, the complaint contends. In those conversations Snyder discussed how to make the arrangement not look like extortion, according to the complaint, called a “petition for disciplinary or remedial action” and filed Monday in the Maryland Court of Appeals.
“The critical thing is, how do we implement an agreement that doesn’t let these things surface, that’s not extortion,” Snyder was recorded saying at an August 2018 meeting, according to the grievance commission filing.
Snyder said in an interview Thursday with The Baltimore Sun that he did nothing wrong and asserted the hospital system filed the complaint with the attorney grievance commission to silence him.
The hospital was facing a barrage of accusations from Snyder, according to the commission’s complaint, including that “UMMS had been pressuring its transplant surgeons to perform highly lucrative surgeries,” while the quality of its transplant unit was dropping.
At one point, according to the complaint, the hospital’s then-chief medical officer, Stephen T. Bartlett, sent a text to Snyder, acknowledging he shared his concerns about liability with a top official with the hospital’s insurer.
“I explained that we are in jeopardy for fraud and punitive damages. She understands,” according to a transcript of the text included in the complaint.
Snyder has not been charged with a crime, and said Thursday that the FBI had cleared him. The FBI said it could not comment.
“The critical thing is, how do we implement an agreement that doesn’t let these things surface, that’s not extortion.”
The attorney grievance commission alleges several counts of misconduct.
Snyder was described by The Sun in 1999 as a “strutting, shouting, weeping, cajoling master of the jury case,” second at the time only to Peter Angelos as the state’s most successful plaintiff’s attorney. “The turn-on for me is taking a big risk and getting a big reward,” he said then.
His firm, Snyder Litigation Group, produced television commercials with the slogan: “Don’t just sue them. Snyder them.”
“I’m really the victim, to be honest with you,” Snyder said in Thursday’s interview. “Unfortunately I’m being portrayed as the villain.”
Snyder said he sought to become a paid consultant for the hospital, with his client’s approval, “so I could help straighten them out as a result of all the misconduct that was existing, and help prevent any future tragedies.”
The attorney grievance commission in its complaint calls the proposal a “sham.”
Attempts to reach members of the estate of one of Snyder’s clients were unsuccessful. The other client died after reaching a settlement with the hospital.
Hospital officials filed a complaint against Snyder with the attorney grievance commission in January 2019. That prompted an investigation that resulted in the commission’s complaint filed Monday, seeking that he be disciplined.
The attorney grievance commission investigates allegations against lawyers and can bring administrative charges in the Court of Appeals. Cases are first assigned to county-level judges, who hold fact-finding hearings and make recommendations to the appellate court, which decides on discipline, which can include suspension or even disbarment.
The information in the commission’s complaint is more trouble for UMMS, which was rocked by the Healthy Holly scandal that sent former Mayor Catherine E. Pugh to federal prison and led to the resignations of board members, the CEO and other top executives.
Snyder was representing two people who suffered catastrophic injuries after undergoing organ transplant surgeries. The attorney grievance complaint says that Snyder had multiple meetings with Bartlett, who at the time was the University of Maryland Medical Center’s chief of surgery and UMMS’ chief medical officer.
Bartlett, one of the state’s highest paid employees, left the hospital system at the end of 2018, ending a 28-year relationship. The hospital did not comment on the reasons for his departure.
Bartlett had been mentioned in a lawsuit brought against the affiliated University of Maryland School of Medicine, the University of Maryland, Baltimore and a related foundation four months before he left. The suit alleged officials, including the doctor, did not respond when a female research coordinator said she was being sexually harassed by another superior. According to the lawsuit, Bartlett allegedly acknowledged a “boys club” but dismissed the concerns.
That lawsuit is ongoing, according to the plaintiff’s lawyer. Allegations that included complaints from other women eventually led to sweeping reforms at the school and medical center aimed at promoting a more equitable environment.
The attorney grievance commission complaint against Snyder alleges that hospital officials ordered an internal investigation and determined Bartlett had not disclosed all of his meetings with Snyder.
Reached Thursday, Bartlett declined to comment.
In a statement, Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesman for the medical center, said Bartlett’s decision to leave was unrelated to “any of the facts outlined in the complaint against Mr. Snyder, nor was his resignation related in any way to the performance of the transplant program.”
University of Maryland Medical Center is a major transplant hospital, performing more than 400 transplants a year. In 2012, a team that included Bartlett performed what was the nation’s most comprehensive face transplant. The hospital has one of the country’s largest kidney transplant programs.
Schwartzberg, in the statement, said the center’s experts “often handle the most complex cases that other transplant centers have declined, and our program’s capabilities in kidney, heart, liver, pancreas and lung transplantation are well-recognized regionally and nationally.”
“We have no further comment about Mr. Snyder’s actions other than the allegations in the petition speak for themselves,” he said. “Our attorneys believed that in light of Mr. Snyder’s conduct, we were obligated to report his behavior to the Attorney Grievance Commission. This action is now in their hands.”
In an interview Thursday, Snyder again lodged the same allegations against UMMS attributed to him in the grievance, including that UMMS “touted itself as one of the finest transplant centers in the country,” when the reality was far different, he said.
The complaint alleges that, “by October 2017, [Snyder] had discovered what he considered to be evidence that UMMS had been pressuring its transplant surgeons to perform highly lucrative surgeries as well as evidence that he believed demonstrated that the transplant division was in turmoil because of its decline in success rates and diminishing status as an organ transplant center.”
The complaint alleges that Snyder sought to parlay those assertions into a major payday while suppressing disclosure of the problems. Snyder repeatedly told the hospital’s insurance trust attorney, Susan Kinter, that “monumental problems” within the transplant division would be damaging to the hospital if made public, the complaint says.
“We’re talking about potential litigation. And, uh, we’re talking about reputation of the hospital, and we’re talking about lost revenues. And we’re talking about, you know, compliance, being flagged by federal institutions and the loss of, of Medicare funding,” Snyder said, according to the attorney grievance commission complaint.
The complaint also alleges that at one point Snyder told hospital officials he was ready to launch an advertising campaign, showing them a video he produced called “Caught Red Handed.” He characterized the case of the man who died as a “gold mine,” according to the complaint.
“He stated again that M.S. (his client) does not ‘deserve’ $25 million and that the $25 million was for him to keep quiet about what he had uncovered,” the attorney grievance commission’s complaint alleges. “He stated that there were ‘devastating’ emails that would only be kept confidential if he was paid $25 million.”
When Kinter asked why $25 million, Snyder stated, “because that is what you have to pay me” and that it could have been “$100 million,” according to the complaint; he said it could be delivered in the form of a consulting agreement.
“When asked what he proposed to do to earn a $25 million consulting fee, [Snyder] said, ‘I could be a janitor.’ [Snyder] stated that it would be a ‘tragedy’ if UMMS did not pay him, that Ms. Kinter would get fired and that the hospital would say, ‘how the [expletive] did you let this happen,‘” the complaint reads.
In 2019, hospital officials retained outside counsel, former State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who recommended they go to the FBI. In a series of meetings that August with hospital officials, Snyder reiterated many of his past comments while being surreptitiously recorded, according to the complaint.
He upped his asking price to $50 million, the complaint alleges.
“Listen to me as a friend. I’m 71. Get this off your plate. You’ll be a hero, and it’ll never surface,” he said, according to the transcript in the complaint.
In an interview with The Sun, Snyder said he had never before sought a consulting agreement from someone he was considering bringing a case against. He told The Sun that the hospital only had to say “no,” but that officials there kept the discussions going in order to get him in trouble and prevent him from bringing additional cases.
He said that his assertions were made in a legal context. “If you’re threatening to use legal process, and legal process is the courtroom, you’re protected,” he said.
Snyder said the grievance commission complaint did not provide a complete picture of the recorded calls. He provided The Sun with documents that he said show the complaint omitted other portions of the FBI transcript the commission left out of its complaint, including one where he said in an Aug. 23, 2018 meeting: “In my heart of hearts, I don’t care if you say no to this thing.”
The attorney grievance commission alleges that not only did Snyder violate multiple provisions of the rules of professional conduct, but he also had conflicts of interests in his dealings with the hospital and one of his clients, the wife of a man who died because of complications from surgery.
“[Snyder] openly admitted that his loyalty was to the hospital, not [his client]; he failed to keep [the client] fully apprised of all material communications related to the ‘consulting agreement’,” the grievance commission complaint said. “(H)e failed to discuss with her how any funds would be disbursed; he failed to advise her of any potential or actual conflict of interest; and he failed to obtain her informed consent, confirmed in writing.”