Special to the Sun
October 23, 2007
Two child psychiatrists at Columbia University's medical center are at the center of a legal dispute over what one alleges was a wrongful termination, charging that his colleague spread rumors about him that resulted in his sudden departure from the university.
According to a lawsuit seeking nearly $15 million filed in state Supreme Court late last week against the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, a former director of the Ruane Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health, Peter Jensen, is charging that the chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry, David Shaffer, systematically orchestrated a "Machiavellian ouster" of Mr. Jensen that started the moment he arrived at Columbia in 1999.
According to the complaint, the animosity stems from a dispute in the 1990s, when Mr. Shaffer allegedly misattributed the denial of several research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health to Mr. Jensen, who was working there at the time.
The two mental health professionals first met in the early 1980s, when Mr. Jensen, who is 57, was completing his post-graduate work in child psychiatry. Mr. Shaffer, 71, served as Mr. Jensen's "long-distance mentor" for years, the suit says.
In 1998, the Ruane Center's benefactor, the philanthropist William Ruane, offered Mr. Jensen a position as its director, at which time, according to the suit, Mr. Shaffer began disclosing his "personal animus and resentment" toward Mr. Jensen.
Since he arrived, Mr. Shaffer has allegedly accused Mr. Jensen of "incompetence," and has told colleagues that one of his continuing goals before retirement was to "get rid of Jensen," according to the suit. At one point, Mr. Shaffer allegedly told Mr. Jensen to "just leave" the position, the suit says. An attorney for Mr. Jensen, Neal Brickman, said Mr. Shaffer was enacting "a personal vendetta" out of "jealousy." Mr. Jensen further charges the university did not follow the proper protocol when terminating his position at the Ruane Center. According to his initial work contract, he was to be entitled to three years' pay should he be removed from his position, but the suit charges his compensation was cut in half in March and that since June the school has stopped paying Mr. Jensen entirely. Attempts to negotiate with the school failed, Mr. Brickman said. A spokesman for Columbia, Robert Hornsby, said the university would not comment on the suit. Messages left for Mr. Shaffer were not returned.