Discrimination charges plague organization

2007-02-01
Jennifer Fiala

Vancouver, British Columbia - Teetering on financial ruin, the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association (BCVMA) faces roughly 50 lawsuits carrying millions of dollars in punitive damages if veterinarians from India prove Canadian regulators guilty of discrimination.

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Teetering on financial ruin, the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association (BCVMA) faces roughly 50 lawsuits carrying millions of dollars in punitive damages if veterinarians from India prove Canadian regulators guilty of discrimination.

Insiders predict the legal whirlwind might soon blow into the United States.

The plaintiffs, who bill themselves as British Columbia Veterinarians for Justice, accuse BCVMA of unfairly restricting and challenging their licenses based on race.

A court-issued gag order barred the association from commenting despite repeated DVM Newsmagazine requests.

The charges, filed by 19 veterinarians in British Columbia Superior Court and an estimated 30 veterinarians in The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, revolve around a long list of discrimination allegations. According to court documents, the accusers insist BCVMA, a membership body that doubles as the province's regulatory agency, unfairly singles out Indian-born veterinarians by demanding they pass an English-language proficiency test to practice in the country — the same test issued to foreign practitioners in the United States. The plaintiffs allege BCVMA abuses its power, defames and maliciously prosecutes foreign veterinarians by conducting hearings for unwarranted regulatory violations that tarnish their reputations. Such targeting, they say, is a conspiracy to stifle Indo-Canadian veterinarians whose service charges fall below the association's published fee guide.

Federal Trade Commission laws prohibit U.S. veterinary groups from circulating pricing averages in a fee guide format. But in Canada, the ability to publish fee guides gives organized veterinary medicine motive to shut down immigrant practitioners who charge less for services, contends plaintiffs' attorney Gerhard Pyper, scheduled at presstime to represent the superior court plaintiffs in mediation proceedings with BCVMA.

"This is basically a capitalistic problem," he says. "Immigrants are willing to work longer hours at cheaper rates. That threatens established business. You can imagine that people don't like that. My clients feel a threat to their opportunity."

Pyper claims to already have a prospective veterinarian client in New Jersey armed with similar discrimination grievances.

"This is something that's also reflected in the United States. Given the country's more established Constitution and protection of human rights, I think it will be easier to win cases there."

Facing claims?

No U.S. regulatory body contacted by DVM Newsmagazine at presstime reported any lawsuits charging discrimination grievances. Still, Pyper insists they're on the horizon.

Veterinarians for Justice, he says, have been fighting BCVMA for three years. As Supreme Court mediation begins, the human rights tribunal cases will follow with hearings in March.

BCVMA officials, citing the gag order, refused to publicly address any of the cases, but in a December letter to members, leaders outlined the group's dire situation. The lawsuits filed in both venues seek punitive damages that, if assessed, could cost BCVMA millions of dollars. Due to an insurance policy that calls for $50,000 deductibles, fighting the lawsuits and any punitive damages issued might force BCVMA to shut down and its leaders to resign. The government would then pick up licensure oversight, officials say.

"It's cheaper to mediate these things," Pyper says. "The court system takes a long time. Everybody just wants to move on. My clients just want to be treated fairly."

From the sidelines

Like BCVMA officials, Pyper's clients did not respond to DVM Newsmagazine's interview requests. The list of grievances within collected Supreme Court documents are long and the human rights tribunal staff insists their case is 4 inches thick.

Jost am Rhyn, executive director of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, says he's concerned similar charges might spread. Seven out of 10 Canadian provinces are set up with membership bodies that double as regulators, unlike the U.S. system that separates licensing entities from state and national associations. The Canadian VMA, a self-interest group with no legal ties to BCVMA, is closely monitoring the case for its 6,300 members.

Am Rhyn explains that BCVMA, a government body, cannot file for bankruptcy or other forms of financial relief. Leaders in regulatory veterinary medicine have never before faced a case of this magnitude, leaving stakeholders unclear about what will happen to the licensure process if the charges stick.

"We would not get engaged in any of these legal proceedings," am Rhyn says. "But I'm sure effects of this will be felt across the country. It's a first to my knowledge. I've not seen anything like it."