Monday, June 2, 2003

O.C. veterinarianís license on the line
Robert Rooks handled tough cases, but complaints built up.

The Orange County Register

Veterinarian Robert L. Rooks owns a nationally recognized animal hospital in Fountain Valley where his staff performs advanced treatments on pets, such as chemotherapy, hip replacements, root canals and MRI exams.

He was once named veterinary practitioner of the year. He has 20 veterinarians and 65 technicians on his payroll. He treats more than 30,000 animals a year.

And he has enemies. Lots of them.

Rooks, 49, has been sued more than a dozen times, mostly in small-claims court.

A Web site chronicles the legal complaints against him and his hospital, All-Care Animal Referral.

Two years ago, someone anonymously mailed hundreds of packets to his veterinary colleagues around the country detailing allegations against him and asking that they refrain from referring business his way.

Now, Rooks is on trial facing charges by the California Veterinary Medical Board that could cost him his license to practice veterinary medicine and his profitable animal hospital.

Rooks, who opened his practice to Orange County in 1987, denies any wrongdoing.

"I would never do anything that would be dishonest or not in the best interest of the animals I treat," Rooks said outside a San Diego courtroom where Administrative Law Judge Alan S. Meth has been hearing evidence on seven alleged causes for discipline since late April.

"Being a veterinarian is what I came to do. This is what I am," Rooks said. "I don't like losing a patient. I still only make decisions that are in the best interests of the animal."

Attorneys on both sides finished presenting evidence last week, said Dan Stanley, one of Rooks' lawyers. The attorneys have 30 days to submit written final arguments, and Meth could render a recommendation sometime in July.

The California Attorney General's Office, in a 26-page complaint filed on behalf of the state's Veterinary Medical Board, contends that Rooks unlawfully allowed a former heavy-equipment operator to perform surgery on animals, including making incisions, closing wounds and administering anesthesia.

The complaint also accuses Rooks of fraud or deception for allegedly ordering the same employee to create new, inaccurate patient records when threatened with a lawsuit by the owner of Honey Bear, a 10-year-old Akita who died after surgery.

And Rooks also is accused of misrepresenting some of his veterinarians as specialists and being negligent and deceitful in recommending back surgery for a 120-pound mastiff named Rocky.

Tustin lawyer Clifford W. Roberts, Jr., another of Rooks' attorneys, says the accusations are motivated by other veterinarians jealous of his success, grief-stricken pet owners who can't get over the loss of their animals, and disgruntled former employees, including the former heavy-equipment operator.

Roberts said there is no evidence that Rooks or his staff ever harmed an animal through negligence.

He said an unlicensed employee did perform some minor procedures on a cat owned by the hospital and was allowed to administer anesthesia to other pets. But none of that was improper, Roberts maintained.

Roberts also said Rooks did not authorize falsification of medical records involving Honey Bear, and the doctor was never sued by that pet's owner. Roberts also said Rooks did not improperly misrepresent the qualifications of some of his staff.

And Rooks still stands by his diagnosis that Rocky, the mastiff who limped, needed back surgery, Roberts said.

Rooks also has friends. Lots of them.

In 2001, after hundreds of anonymous mailings were delivered to veterinarians who had been referring pets to Rooks, some of those friends rallied to his side.

Dana Point veterinarian Paul Schneider and Laguna Hills veterinarian Charles Acton organized a letter-writing campaign that lauded Rooks for being "instrumental in improving the quality of veterinary medical and surgical care in the community ... We continue to trust and support All-Care and Dr. Rooks. We would trust Dr. Rooks with the care of our own pets."

The letters were signed by more than 400 California veterinarians.

Nearly all of the pets treated at All-Care Animal Referral are sent by other veterinarians in Southern California because of more severe medical problems.

Love him or hate him, Rooks is one of the most well-known veterinarians in the state. And his administrative trial is likely the most watched and talked-about trial ever in the California veterinary community.

"(The case) is enormous in its bulk," said Studio City attorney Diana Parrish, who specializes in suing veterinarians in pet-care cases. "There is an enormous amount of public scrutiny here."

She said she has received dozens of complaints about Rooks and All-Care over the years. She said at least a dozen complaints were forwarded to the California Veterinary Medical Board, which investigated him for two years before turning the probe over to the state Attorney General's Office.

Most of the complaints allege incompetence by All-Care veterinarians and the recommending of unnecessary surgeries in order to bill for more money, Parrish said.

Joanna Patrice, who sued Rooks and settled out of court after her cat died following surgery in 1997, said the lengthy trial is extremely unusual.

"Most disciplinary hearings for veterinarians are settled in a day," said Patrice, who has spoken out against Rooks on the death of her pet on television news shows and in newspaper articles.

Patrice says she brought Rusty, a "perfectly healthy cat," to the hospital and was talked into unnecessary surgery. She said Rusty died because of incompetent treatment.

Patrice said she also filed a formal complaint to the state Veterinary Medical Board over Rusty's death, but no action was taken.

Acton, the veterinarian who supports Rooks, testified during the trial that most veterinarians he knows are closely following the trial.

"You would have to be dead not to know what's going on," Acton testified.


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