Dr. Howard Schneider's house

Photo by Thursday Review staff

“Dr. Torture” Settles With Former Patients

| published January 21, 2016 |

By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review features editor

More than 100 malpractice lawsuits have been "amicably resolved" between Howard S. Schneider, a former Jacksonville, Florida pediatric dentist, and parents of children he allegedly mistreated while under his medical care, according to First Coast News and other media reports.

Attorney John Phillips sued Schneider on behalf of 104 patients, but terms of the agreement prohibited him from discussing details with reporters, including when the settlements might have been reached in Florida's 4th Judicial Court.

The dentist’s spacious and elegant 1870 house, officially registered with the Florida Department of State as an historic landmark, is now empty, its walls blank and its hardwood floors cleaned. A “For Sale” sign adorns the front yard, not far from a bronze marker explaining the provenance of the 145 year old structure. The house, now in foreclosure, was hurriedly emptied and placed on the market as a result of Schneider’s mounting legal costs.

Schneider practiced dentistry for more than four decades in Jacksonville amidst a background of rumors of abuse and mistreatment of some of his young patients. Former employees, too, often complained to authorities about conditions in Schneider’s office, and even after hundreds of police reports spanning a 20-year period, Schneider’s dental practice remained thriving and profitable. Early investigations into alleged Medicaid fraud date back more than 12 years, and a frequent complaint by parents was that of unnecessary procedures which were billed to families or to Medicaid.

Still, Schneider’s Southside dental practice remained more-or-less unfazed by the accusations and the rumors for years.

But everything began to unravel in December 2014 when Brandi Fagg-Motley complained about how the pediatric dentist treated her daughter. The girl came in for a tooth cleaning and would eventually have eight teeth pulled; but that wasn't even the worst part. The mother was forced to take her daughter to a hospital, because she evidently received a head injury when she fell to the floor.

"I stepped out from the room, turned back, when I came back in she was face first on the floor," Fagg-Motley told reporters. "She was in a papoose board, so I don't understand how she fell from the chair to the floor."

Schneider also spoke at that time with a television crew from First Coast News, telling an entirely different story concerning the incident, and shrugging off concerns that it would lead to more legal problems.

"I'm not worried about the allegations," said Schneider at his Riverside home, "because the allegations are not true." Other reporters during that period met with a stone wall, or worse. Dr. Schneider became famously irritable with reporters and photographers, either at his office or at his stately home.

But Motley turned to social media, posting pictures of her child and discussing her experience at the doctor's office with scores of others. Her Facebook post went viral, and soon families of many other former Schneider patients came forward with similar scenarios and remarkably similar tales of horror. That storm on social media opened a floodgate of revelations, including harrowing stories by former patients—many of them now adults—and by family members.

Many of families and parents tell stories or share accusations which mirror each other or bear a striking similarity; Schneider is accused of pulling teeth or crowning teeth unnecessarily, of operating on patients’ teeth without Novocain or anesthetic, of manipulating painkillers and treatment room procedures to deliberately maximize pain for the patient, and telling whining or whimpering children to shut up if they ever wanted to see their parents again.

The rapidly expanding controversy also spurred some former employees to discuss their own recollections of the horrors that took place in Dr. Schneider’s office. Those stories by former hygienists and dental assistants revealed a pattern of heavy-handed and rough dental treatment that bordered on torture and abuse. Many of the former employees were fearful of discussing some of things they witnessed inside the dentist’s office; still others were ready to tell their stories, but were compelled not to reveal their own identities because they were employees of other dentists in the area at the time.

At least one employee—who has remained anonymous—took her concerns to state regulators. She recalled how parents were required to remain cut-off from young patients during procedures and surgery, forced to wait outside two locked doors. Inside those treatment rooms, pain seemed to be the norm, not the exception.

“He didn’t like for you to be nurturing and make them feel at ease,” she explained, “he wanted you to be rough. He would get angry when you would try to calm them down. I felt like he made them want to be scared…I started crying because I just felt uncomfortable with that.”

Adding to the strange and ever-deepening story are those frequent police reports. According records at the Jacksonville Sherriff’s Office, law enforcement was called to Dr. Schneider’s office at least 160 times during a 20 year period—unprecedented for a dental practice, and certainly without parallel for the offices of a pediatric dentist. Some parents and former patients want to better understand how after all those police calls nothing was done officially to look into what was happening inside Dr. Schneider’s office.

Last year, following nine days of massive, sometimes noisy demonstrations outside Schneider's University Boulevard office, the 78-year-old dentist abruptly closed his practice. Employees were let go. By mid-spring he surrendered licenses to practice dentistry in both Florida and Georgia, and began the process of shutting down his office, moving files, and moving out. Dr. Schneider, in effect, retired.

However, Florida's Medicaid fraud unit instituted an in-depth investigation which culminated in 11 counts of defrauding the governmental agency. The probe would reveal his office received $3.9 million from Medicaid over a four-year period, much of which was found to be associated with fraudulent billing. He recently filed court documents claiming an inability to pay attorney's fees, thus seeking temporary support to cover those bills.

Also, Judge Mark Hulsey recused himself from the case amid speculation that he might have a connection to Schneider's family. Judge Angela Cox has taken over the case and will administer Schneider's next hearing, scheduled for January 21.

It was an absolute zoo in November when Schneider was finally charged with Medicaid fraud. Turning himself in at his attorney's office, he was arrested and faced 11 charges of unauthorized Medicaid claims, but was released on $110,000 bond. That was after the State Attorney's Office swore out a warrant for his arrest.

An attorney for the parents of his former patients immediately called a news conference. Fagg-Motley and fellow parent Amanda Barry had awaited this day since Schneider treated their children.

"This affected us big time," said Motley. Her daughter has been suffering from nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder, and trust issues with men and physicians since her visit with the embattled dentist. "I never thought this day would come, but I'm happy it did come."

The Attorney General's office also announced that the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office had a warrant for one of Schneider's former dental assistants. LaTosha Bevel-Hillsman, 39, was quickly arrested and charged with practicing dentistry or dental hygiene without an active license, defrauding the Florida Medicaid program and child abuse/intentional infliction of physical or mental injury. The accusations were that Bevel-Hillsman pulled a tooth—something she was not legally authorized to do—and caused major harm to a child.

If Bevel-Hillsman is convicted, she faces 15 years in prison and more than $15,000 in fines and restitution for her work with Dr. Schneider.

Hundreds of parents came forward last year claiming Schneider abused their children while under his care. Aside from those who say he pulled teeth without the benefit of anesthesia, others claim he performed unnecessary dental procedures strictly to line his pockets by defrauding Medicaid. Schneider’s fee-for-service reimbursements in 2012 and 2013 were more than $1 million, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration. The 11 counts of Medicaid fraud could each carry a five-year sentence in jail, but that number may rise if all the counts are grouped.

“If you combine them together then the penalty would be greater because you would have an amount alleged over $10,000, so those could even be second-degree felonies or more serious penalties,” said legal expert Rhonda Peoples-Waters.

Dozens of Schneider's former patients had filed a class-action lawsuit against him, and in June a large U-Haul truck was backed in the driveway of his historic Riverside home, according to First Coast News.

"You all need to leave," said one of the movers, "The homeowners don't want you here."

The camera-shy Schneiders were not accepting visitors, as movers used cardboard boxes to shield ex-wife Deborah from the television camera. Another mover used his body to shield Schneider from a reporter as he walked into the house.

"I am moving to Charleston, where my wife is from," said Dr. Schneider," I am sick of it; I have done nothing wrong." The decision caught some by surprise, not the least of which was Jacksonville attorney Gust Sarris.

"I'm surprised he is moving with his wife whom he just divorced," said Sarris, who represents several families who are suing Schneider. "We will pursue it. We will do everything to protect these victims." Sarris was the first lawyer to file a malpractice complaint against Schneider, but John Phillips soon followed with suits from numerous clients.

"Sounds like he's running to me," Sarris said, noting that he has included Schneider's ex-wife in the lawsuit. "For law enforcement it is not going to hurt their investigation," said Sarris, "For my end of it, we are going to chase those assets wherever he may run."

The gorgeous home, located near the scenic St. Johns River, is presently in foreclosure with a February 16 hearing scheduled at the same downtown courthouse where Schneider has previously "visited." The historic marker in front of his house includes a reference to happier times for the doctor, who purchased the house for his wife as a birthday gift.

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Dentist Who Loved Torture and Medical Fraud; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; May 24, 2015.

My Work Life With PTSD; Carol Chance; Thursday Review; January 19, 2016.