Dr. Joel Batzofin founded the Huntington Reproductive Center in Pasadena…
Dr. Joel Batzofin founded the Huntington Reproductive Center in Pasadena in 1988 and turned it into the biggest fertility practice in the West.
By undercutting competitors' prices, he drew patients from around the world to his Southern California clinics. By 2001, Batzofin and the five partners he brought in shared a yearly profit of more than $5 million.
But in a drama vaguely reminiscent of Julius Caesar's, his partners took a secret vote the next year, ousting him from his own empire.
The result was an explosion of litigation. Batzofin filed an arbitration claim against his former partners. They sued Batzofin and his new partner. Then his new partner sued his old partners and their lawyer.
Along the way, private detectives posed as fertility patients. In search of damning evidence, at least one female gumshoe submitted to an ultrasound of her uterus and ovaries. A doctor submitted his own sperm sample to his crosstown rival, pretending it was the aspiring father's.
The legal brawl went on for six years, revolving largely around whether Batzofin was abiding by a settlement agreement not to compete with his former colleagues when he opened a new practice.
The clash among fertility titans underscores just how intense the competition has become in the multibillion-dollar business of baby-making. Because fertility treatments usually are not covered by insurance, clinics vie for customers with advertising, discounts, websites or supposedly special techniques, much as plastic surgeons do.
"The way somebody in this field becomes wealthy is to corner the market," said Kirk O. Hanson, an ethicist at Santa Clara University who studies the business aspects of medicine.
Southern California has one of the highest densities of fertility clinics in the world, with more than three dozen clinics competing for patients.
"It's a cutthroat business," said Batzofin, 56. "There is a lot of greed."
Batzofin got into the business early, starting Huntington 10 years after the first test-tube baby was born. In vitro fertilization then was a revolution for infertile couples.
As business grew, Batzofin brought in new partners and gave them full voting rights. But, as he tells it, the group soon was riven by the drive for money.
"Doctors were starting to compete with each other for the next patient that walks through the door," he said.
Dr. Michael Feinman, who joined the practice in 1998, had a different take. He described Batzofin as "a strong-willed guy who didn't like to share power."
The breaking point came in the fall of 2002, when Batzofin made disparaging remarks about a partner during a fertility society dinner, according to court records. He acknowledges being critical but says he was engaged in a quiet conversation; his partners said he was too loud.
The partners met -- without Batzofin -- at a Doubletree hotel and voted him out. "I did not understand how evil people could be," Batzofin said.
He filed a complaint. In an arbitration settlement, the partners agreed to buy his share of the business, valued at more than $1.5 million. Batzofin agreed not to practice fertility medicine in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino or Ventura counties for five years.
The agreement was specific about the contact he could initiate with former patients: One holiday card a year.
Batzofin had received only the first installment of his buyout when he decided to open a clinic in New York City. It was a joint venture with the Sher Institute of Reproductive Medicine, a chain of 10 fertility centers run by one of the earliest practitioners of in vitro fertilization, a fellow South African named Dr. Geoffrey Sher.
His move set the stage for battle: Huntington (www .havingbabies.com) versus Sher ( www.haveababy.com).
Batzofin's former partners cut off his buyout payments. His new employment violated the "non-compete" agreement, they argued, because Sher's chain had a clinic in Glendale. They prepared to sue both Batzofin and Sher for breach of contract.
Huntington's lawyer on the case called David Batza, a private investigator in Valencia. His assignment: Infiltrate Sher's clinics with women posing as patients to show that Batzofin was steering business to the Glendale office, or perhaps seeing patients there himself.
Private eye's wife
One of the women was the private eye's wife, Michelle. "We both feel very comfortable in you handling this treatment for us," the 37-year-old Michelle Batza wrote in an e-mail to Batzofin. "The money is not even an issue to us -- we just want to have a baby!"
Batzofin, then working at Sher's Las Vegas clinic in preparation for the New York opening, wrote back that she could have tests anywhere in Los Angeles. She chose the chain's Glendale office.
There Michelle Batza had an ultrasound of her uterus and ovaries. She was surprised that it was an invasive procedure, she later said in a deposition. In addition, she received an injection of iodine dye to illuminate her uterus and fallopian tubes for a series of X-rays.