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Judge limits doctors' suit over firing by Hopkins Issue still remains over whether university breached contract


A Baltimore Circuit judge yesterday drastically limited a lawsuit brought by a nationally renowned husband-and-wife team of pediatric cardiologists, who allege they were lured into giving up tenured professorships for positions at the Johns Hopkins University only to be suddenly let go 10 months later.

Yesterday's action restricts the suit to the question of whether the doctors, Sam Ritter and Rebecca Snider, had been appointed permanently at Hopkins when they were informed of their dismissals on Oct. 18, 1994, and whether the university breached its contract with them.

Judge Richard Rombro dismissed claims of breach of contract and defamation against Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the doctors treated patients, after ruling that the hospital was not the couple's employer.

He also struck claims for breach of contract, defamation, and tortious interference against Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, associate dean of the medical school, and Dr. Jean Kan, who now has Dr. Ritter's job as head of pediatric cardiology. Drs. Ritter and Snider had alleged that both doctors started a whispering campaign about them that contributed to their dismissals and tarnished their high reputations in the field.

The saga began in 1993, when Hopkins began a national search in an effort to re-establish the luster of its pediatric cardiology department.

Dr. Snider, then a professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., was considered a top expert in echo cardiography, a nonsurgical method of creating an image of the heart using sound waves. Dr. Ritter was director of pediatric cardiology at Cornell University's New York Hospital.

Hopkins attorney Joseph Finnerty said it didn't matter why the university fired the two doctors -- that because their tenure never actually was finalized, Hopkins wasn't required to have a reason. He pointed to an August 1993 letter in which Frank Oski, director of pediatrics, said tenure hinged on approval from the university's professors appointment and promotions committee. Mr. Finnerty said the tenure process was never completed.

Marvin Ellin, an attorney for Drs. Snider and Ritter, argued unsuccessfully that the university, hospital and its agents had effectively defamed the couple by vaunting them as the saviors of the pediatric cardiology department only to fire them so suddenly. The remaining portion of the suit is scheduled for trial on Oct. 23.

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