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David vs Goliath: Local physician exasperated by feud with Sutter

By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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By all accounts, Roseville’s Ravinder Khaira is a hardworking pediatrician and small business owner with deep ties to the local community; but so far one of the biggest fights of the doctor’s career has not been against a disease, but against the alleged business practices of a multi-billion dollar health-care provider in the region.

Khaira says for more than a decade he’s done everything right to legally own the name Roseville Pediatric Medical Group, but now claims mammoth health provider Sutter Foundation is “ripping off” that name and using its money to “bully” him into surrendering his longstanding proprietary rights — a claim Sutter refutes.

A graduate of U.C. Davis, Khaira first opened his primary care clinic in 1999 on North Sunrise Avenue.

“Going into private practice is pretty rare around here,” Khaira says, looking back. “Most doctors will end up working for either Sutter Health or Kaiser, because you just can’t compete against them.”

But Khaira was confident he could make a family oriented office successful in Roseville. He filed for incorporation as Roseville Pediatric Medical Group, Inc. At the same time, he secured the fictitious business name, Roseville Pediatric Medical Group, obtained his California tax identification as Roseville Pediatric Medical Group and was licensed by the Medical Board of California as Roseville Pediatric Medical Group.    

“I did everything I was supposed to do,” Khaira said. “I had all the things lined up to move forward.”  

Two years into building his practice, Khaira ran into a problem. Patients began calling his office, he said, frustrated and confused, wondering if his office was somehow linked to other clinics in the city. Khaira investigated and learned that Sutter Medical Group had started using the terms Roseville Pediatrics to describe its own pediatric care center. Khaira lodged a complaint with Sutter Health.

“I said to (Sutter), ‘this is really confusing for families, especially for those who have been referred by ob-gyns,’” the doctor recalled. “I asked them to stop using the term Roseville Pediatrics, and they said ‘no.’”

In 2002, Khaira hired an attorney to exert legal pressure on Sutter Health to cease and desist using the names Roseville Pediatrics or Roseville Pediatric Medical Group. According to Khaira, a Sutter Health medical director in Roseville, Cyndee McDonald, eventually sent correspondence to Khaira’s attorney in which she agreed Sutter would no longer use the title. Khaira provided an official letter from his former attorney, John Meissner Jr., thanking McDonald for agreeing to no longer use the name or “publish” information with the name.  

For nearly a decade, there was peace between hometown doctor and one of the city’s biggest medical centers, and Khaira also worked as a referral physician for Sutter Health. 

But in July 2012, relations went south again when Khaira started to hear familiar complaints from patients and potential patients. Sutter’s pediatric clinic was answering its phones again as Roseville Pediatrics, Khaira said, as well as insisting to patients it was the only clinic with that name.  

“I had an angry parent call me, who had lost our number, phoned Sutter and was told by its staff that they were Roseville Pediatrics,” Khaira said. “It caused that parent real problems, and he was furious because he just wanted his baby seen, and it ended up taking two weeks to get his child to the right clinic.”

Khaira’s attorney re-contacted Sutter Health to remind its administration of the 2002 agreement. According to Khaira, Sutter referred his new complaint to a foundation attorney in San Francisco who handles trademark issues. Khaira says this new lawyer for Sutter informed him that Sutter would not cease to use the name Roseville Pediatrics, claiming the health provider had purchased the name in 1997 from four doctors associated with Sutter.

This week, Sutter Roseville Medical Center spokeswoman Robin Montgomery confirmed her company stands by that assessment.

“The physician group has used the name Roseville Pediatrics for decades,” Montgomery said of the four doctors Khaira was recently told about. “Roseville Pediatric Medical Group, which joined Sutter Medical Group in 1997, has used the name since 1972.”  

Khaira calls that claim ridiculous, saying that the four doctors in 1997 were not registered with the Medical Board of California as Roseville Pediatrics, nor did they legally own the fictitious business name, the corporate name or the related California tax ID.

“If they had already registered it in 1997, I never would have used it,” Khaira told the Press Tribune. “In fact, I wouldn’t have been able to because those titles wouldn’t have been available … I got everything I was supposed to get in order to build a business the last 10 years around the name Roseville Pediatrics — their justification for this just doesn’t hold up.”   

The Press Tribune made a direct attempt to ask Sutter Health if its position was that it has — or has ever had — the fictitious business name for Roseville Pediatric Medical Group, the California tax ID for Roseville Pediatric Medical Group or official recognition from the Medical Board of California as Roseville Pediatric Medical Group. Montgomery declined to answer those specific inquiries, but did provide a second statement, which read, “Sutter’s position is that Roseville Pediatric Medical Group that joined Sutter Health in 1997 was, and continues to be, well-known to the community for its long history of providing pediatric care at Sutter Medical Foundation. Sutter Medical Foundation’s common law trademark rights have been strong for many years in Roseville.”  

Without commenting directly on the dispute between Khaira and Sutter Health, University of California Law School Professor Peter Lee explained that in California “common law trademarks” involve non-statutory laws that sometime allow for a person or entity to obtain a trademark simply by using a mark in commerce and affixing the mark to a product that’s being sold. Lee added that federal common law trademarks work differently. 

Khaira was forced to hire a new attorney, Andy Stroud, who specializes in litigation for trademark issues. From Stroud’s perspective, his client has a legitimate complaint against Sutter Health.

“It’s unfortunate,” Stroud said of the conflict. “It’s not in the benefit of either company’s patients to have this kind of confusion going on about whether they’re contacting the right clinic, or showing up to the right places … Dr. Khaira has taken a lot of steps to have the name Roseville Pediatrics, and he’s been using it for many years without one complaint from Sutter ... he has the right to use it without being confused with any one else’s pediatric practice.”

Montgomery was not authorized to make any more statements, other than to say Sutter Health was working Khaira and Stroud on a mutual resolution.

And Khaira may have no choice but to “work with” Sutter: Suing a health care provider with an annual operating budget of more than $9 billion is no easy task. Khaira says he’s already accrued well over $30,000 in legal bills and is now faced with having to come up with a new $50,000 retainer just to get into a courtroom with Sutter, with no guarantee of prevailing.

“It’s a battle of attrition,” Khaira said. “They’re waiting to see if I blink. They have an army of attorneys. They have endless resources to fight me.”

At the same time, Khaira says his own business is facing new challenges due to the stand he’s taken with Sutter Health. Referrals from Sutter ob-gyns to his practice have all but disappeared since the legal ordeal started up again. Perhaps more devastating, Sutter Health’s ability to mobilize large media promotions has now defined its own Roseville clinic as Roseville Pediatrics in online Google searches. Now, when Roseville or Granite Bay parents turn to the Internet to look for potential doctors for their children by searching the term Roseville Pediatrics, the first eight California results that come up are all links to Sutter Medical Group, including the current top hit, as well as the first Facebook page to come up. Khaira said prior to summer of 2012 his practice was getting 20 to 50 new patients a month: He told the Press Tribune that number has significantly dropped.    

 “They already have the name Sutter behind them, so why do this?” Khaira speculated. “We’re just a small medical group. Me and my staff live locally and work locally. Why do they want the name so bad? It’s a bullying tactic to get every last dollar out of local pediatric care.”

And at this point, even Khaira’s own attorney is advising the doctor to look for a compromise with Sutter Health that would — in Khaira’s view — essentially surrender everything he’s worked for in buying, maintaining and building the name Roseville Pediatrics over the last decade. If struck, the deal would ultimately see Sutter Health still using the name Roseville Pediatrics, but always in connection with its Sutter brand.

Khaira knows he has hard decisions ahead.

“What about all of the years I’ve done my due diligence?” he said. “What about all of the time and money I’ve put into to keeping my tax information correct, renewing my fictitious business license, buying equipment and materials for my business with the name that I legally own? Should I have to give all of that up because of Sutter Health’s vast wealth and resources?”

Scott Thomas Anderson can be reached at scotta@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at ScottA_RsvPT