Beleaguered Knoxville dentist Clarence “Buzz” Nabers faces a lawsuit from a former employee who claims she blew the whistle on his dirty practices in 2018 and was forced out of her job as a result.
In a complaint filed in Knox County Circuit Court in October, dental hygienist Karla Kovalchik said she refused Nabers’ orders to perform procedures outside her professional scope, lodged a complaint that kicked off a state investigation in July 2018 and then cooperated with the probe until she was effectively fired that December.
This summer, the Tennessee Board of Dentistry slapped Nabers with an $11,000 fine and placed his license on probation for two years after the investigation concluded he improperly sterilized dental equipment, forged certification documents and had unqualified employees perform work reserved for dentists — such as filling cavities and placing permanent crowns.
Now, the Tennessee Department of Health has recommended patients treated at Nabers’ offices in the past three years be tested for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C — a result of his questionable sterilization techniques. Patients are being informed through letters sent by Nabers and approved by state health officials.
More: Here’s what patients of dentist Buzz Nabers need to know about HIV and hepatitis testing
Practice was down a dentist
Nabers runs dental offices at 304 S. Gay St. in downtown Knoxville and 2061 Thunderhead Road in southwest Knox County. Kovalchik wrote in her complaint she was hired in March 2018 to work 32 hours a week as a licensed dental hygienist in Nabers’ Gay Street office.
Nabers employed more than 14 people, including a second dentist who worked mainly at the Gay Street office. In July 2018, that dentist quit, leaving the practice down a dentist for about four months.
Nabers, who worked at the Gay Street office for four and a half hours a week, told his dental hygienists they had to “provide comprehensive examinations, diagnoses and treatment planning” when he wasn’t there, according to the lawsuit. Under state dentistry rules, hygienists can only perform such work when a licensed dentist is present.
Kovalchik called the Tennessee Board of Dentistry to ask whether she legally could perform the procedures in Nabers’ absence. The answer was no. She told her boss, the hygiene coordinator, who is not named in the lawsuit.
“The hygiene coordinator then threatened to terminate my job saying that, if I would not do what I was told to do, then maybe Dr. Nabers’ office was not for me,” Kovalchik wrote in a formal complaint filed with the state health department’s Office of Investigations.
“Also, Dr. Nabers allows newly graduated dental hygienists to work independently — without a dentist’s supervision — even though the hygienists had graduated less than 12 months before,” the complaint continued. “No one is given lunch even though we work from 7 to 3 each day.”
Nabers denies retaliation
Kovalchik’s lawsuit states the hygiene coordinator sent her home early and removed all patients from her schedule after their conversation.
Kovalchik claimed her cooperation with the state’s investigation was well-known by employees in Nabers’ office. She further alleged the practice retaliated against her by dramatically reducing her hours, scheduling her to work from zero to 16 hours a week until she was removed from the schedule entirely on Dec. 13, 2018.
She is seeking at least $75,000 in damages, including lost wages.
Nabers denied knowledge of the hygiene coordinator’s actions in an answer filed with the court and claimed he did not “require” hygienists to perform procedures in his absence.
He said neither he nor his employees knew Kovalchik had been cooperating with the state and argued she was removed from the work schedule only because she turned down offers to “work on a ‘floating’ basis.”
Nabers’ attorneys, C.J. Gideon and Jed Crumbo, told Knox News they believe “this claim is without merit,” and said they look forward to taking Kovalchik’s deposition.
Kovalchik referred questions to her attorney, who could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday evening.
A hearing in the case has not yet been set.
Reach Travis Dorman at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @travdorman.