Secret recordings, unlawful billing practices, and an $8.5 million settlement in this malpractice case

By Stephanie Srakocic | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published January 22, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • A multi-layered case involving James Luketich, MD, a prominent surgeon at a large Western Pennsylvania healthcare system, has been settled after years of legal battles.

  • In the summer of 2023, recordings of a private conversation between the surgeon and a fellow physician were obtained and made public by a local newspaper.

  • The recordings included racist remarks, discussions of narcotic use, and accusations against the healthcare system’s CEO.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) system owns 40 hospitals across Southwestern Pennsylvania. Since 2018, this massive regional healthcare provider has been involved in a legal battle involving its flagship hospital, UPMC Presbyterian, in Pittsburgh, PA, and James Luketich, MD, a prominent UPMC surgeon. Before the legal controversies, Dr. Luketich was the longstanding chairman of cardiothoracic surgery and a prominent figure in the healthcare system, even featuring in advertisements for UPMC Presbyterian’s surgical services.[]  

The case began when Paul and Bernadette Fedorka, a couple from Aliquippa, PA, filed suit against Dr. Luketich. The malpractice suit alleges that Dr. Luketich mismanaged and abused prescription drugs, including Suboxone. The lawsuit further alleges that Dr. Luketich made professional decisions and performed surgeries while under the influence of Suboxone.[]

Although Dr. Luketich did not directly operate on Bernadette Fedorka, the malpractice suit alleges that decisions he made as head of the transplant program were impaired by his use of Suboxone. The complaint states that his use of the drug impaired his judgment, causing a series of poor management decisions that depleted the lung transplant unit of resources and led to a botched operation. Defense lawyers for Dr. Luketich have denied these allegations, stating that Dr. Luketich’s use of Suboxone was to control back pain and did not affect his professional judgment.[] 

The Department of Justice investigates

Dr. Luketich’s reported Suboxone use was also the subject of a 2019 federal whistleblower complaint filed by Dr. Luketich’s fellow UPMC Presbyterian surgeon and former friend, Jonathan D’Cunha, M.D. This complaint led the Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct a large-scale 2021 investigation into both Dr. Luketich and UPMC’s billing and surgical practices. Prosecutors determined that Dr. Luketich would carry on multiple surgeries at a time and then falsely bill the government for millions of dollars, all with UPMC’s full knowledge. They found that surgeries were scheduled so that Dr. Luketich would perform them at the expense of the patient's needs and well-being so that he could bill for the procedures. Allegedly, “hundreds of materially false,” claims were submitted to Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal programs.[][]

In February 2023, UPMC and the DOJ reached a settlement of $8.5 million. UPMC did not admit wrongdoing; however, as part of the settlement agreement, the organization agreed to create a corrective action plan for Dr. Luketich.[]  

A recorded conversation becomes court record 

Dr. D’Cunha and Lara Schaheen, MD, another colleague of Dr. Luketich, are tied to another piece of this complex legal story: In 2018, Dr. Luketich had a conversation with UPMC pulmonologist David Wilson, MD, in an observation room at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. D’Cunha and Dr. Schaheen allegedly recorded the conversation without Dr. Luketich’s knowledge. Dr. D’Cunha and Dr. Schaheen denied making the recording, stating in court that they overheard Dr. Wilson and Dr. Luketich’s conversation through an open door.[][] 

No matter how the recording was acquired, it has been at the center of the legal case for years. In it, Dr. Luketich and Dr. Wilson discuss Suboxone: Dr. Wilson had been prescribing the narcotic to Dr. Luketich for years. In their recorded conversation, they discussed Dr. Luketich’s continued use of Suboxone as prescribed by Dr. Wilson.[] 

The recording and its transcript were initially concealed from the public but were a longstanding point of courtroom debate. For years, legal teams working on Dr. Luketich’s defense argued that the recording was illegally acquired and should, therefore, be excluded from evidence. Lawyers for the Fedorkas countered that recordings were evidence of Dr. Luketich’s substance use and needed to be included in the legal proceedings.[]

In May 2023, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained the recordings and publicized their contents. In the recording, Dr. Luketich made racist remarks about a Black surgical resident. According to the Post-Gazette, Dr. Luketich stated, [H]e’s a little … uppity. You know, for a … you know. I wouldn’t say he is the typical Awori Hayanga [a medical director at West Virginia University School of Medicine], Black man. I’d say he’s a little bit entitled.[]

Additionally, the conversation included remarks that then-UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff was pushing organ transplants because they were profitable for the health system. In the weeks following the Post-Gazette’s publishing of transcripts of the recording, UPMC announced that Dr. Luketich would be stepping down as chair of the cardiothoracic surgery department. []

The Post-Gazette publishing also prompted the full public release of the recording and transcripts in July 2023. In January 2024, the initial lawsuit was settled. The settlement amount and terms are unknown, and the legal teams on both sides have declined to comment.[][] 

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