A Corona del Mar podiatrist is struggling to get his foot in the door at a prestigious medical building complex in Newport Beach, complaining that the landlord is discriminating against his profession.
Ivar Roth, 36, describes himself as "very conservative" and said he fits right into the traditional Newport Beach physician community. "I follow the rules," he said. "I don't make trouble."
But after being rebuffed for more than four years in his attempts to lease space in prestigious Newport Center, Roth has thrown decorum to the wind. Last Friday, he filed a lawsuit against Frank A. Rhodes, a principal owner of Newport Center, and nine doctors who work in the complex. The suit alleges that Rhodes and the doctors conspired to keep podiatrists out of Newport Center to prevent competition with orthopedic surgeons at the center.
On Wednesday, Roth gathered a group of about 15 friends, patients and fellow podiatrists--some with young children in tow--to picket the nine-story medical building. Roth carried a sign proclaiming: "Newport Center is not a private MD Club."
Roth said that 4 1/2 years ago he applied to lease space in one of the four medical buildings that Rhodes, managing partner of Causey & Rhodes, operates in Newport Center. At that time, Roth said, he had just obtained staff privileges to perform surgery at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.
Roth claims that Rhodes told him to come back after he had been on the Hoag staff for a year and that he would be allowed to lease space at Newport Center. But later, Roth said, Rhodes changed his mind when some of the orthopedic surgeons who work in the complex complained that a podiatrist's office in the same facility might cut into their business.
About six months ago, Roth said, he recruited his patients and fellow physicians at Hoag Hospital to write letters and make telephone calls on his behalf to Rhodes. He said Rhodes told one of the physicians that "he would never rent to a podiatrist."
Roth, who is licensed by the state podiatry board, contends that his professional education is as rigorous as that of a medical doctor. He said he studied four years to obtain a doctor of podiatric degree and completed a three-year hospital residency in foot and ankle surgery. In addition, he said he has a master's degree in public health from the University of Illinois.
"I moved to Newport Beach because I wanted to practice medicine the way it should be practiced," he said. "People here can afford to have high-quality medical care."
Roth called Newport Center "the mecca of medicine in Orange County." Doctors in those buildings, he said, have a high profile and benefit from inter-office patient referrals. Roth said he is willing to pay the going rate of $5,000 a month to rent space in the building.
Roth's suit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, seeks $6 million in damages. He alleges that he lost at least $2 million in business because he could not set up his practice at Newport Center.
Rhodes, however, claims that he never promised Roth that he could rent space in the Causey & Rhodes buildings. "It is our policy to lease to medical doctors and dentists only," he said, "and that has been our policy in Orange County for 25 years."
Causey & Rhodes has set similar restrictions at 14 other medical office buildings that it has developed in Southern California, including a new building next to Irvine Medical Center in Irvine, Rhodes said.
Rhodes said he has been advised by his lawyers that "we have the right in a private building to lease to whom we want to."
"We can't be everything to everybody," he said. "It's a free country."
Rhodes also said he presently has no office space available for lease at the center.
He denied that the ban against podiatrists is intended to protect orthopedic surgeons in the buildings from more competition.
Rhodes said he polled the orthopedic surgeons in his buildings and found that none objected to letting in podiatrists.
Robert Walters, an attorney and lobbyist for the California Podiatric Medical Assn., said podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons are qualified to perform "essentially the same procedures" on feet and ankles.
Walters said he has heard of no other instances in which podiatrists have complained of being denied office space in a medical building. But there "has been a long-standing effort by podiatrists to break down the barriers that have precluded them from equal rights to practice their medical specialty."
During the past 40 years, he said, podiatrists--which currently number about 1,800 in California--have won passage of legislation to give them full staff privileges at hospitals, insurance reimbursement for their services and consideration for inclusion in health maintenance organizations. Podiatrists in Orange County are especially active, he added. Roth said he is not going to relent in his fight with Rhodes, who he said has a reputation as "a very stubborn gentleman."
"It is a do-or-die situation," he said. "It is him or me."