ABR & Guessing the Cost of a Lawsuit

All non-profits have to file a Form 990 with the IRS detailing their finances. The ABR’s 990 says “THE BYLAWS, CONFLICT OF INTEREST POLICY AND FINANCIAL STATEMENTS ARE AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST.” I’ve already read and discussed the bylaws, but I thought I’d ask for the financial statements. Two emails went unanswered, but after I asked publically on Twitter I got a polite and professional email within a day.

Unfortunately, the statement I received was a broad profit and loss statement even less detailed than the 990. I’m not going to lie, I was really hoping they would send me something more granular that would further break down categories like travel to get a feel for how the ABR really operates. Travel expenses would likely include paying for coach airfare for volunteers to come together for question writing committees and the magical Angoff process, but they might also contain expenses related to annual getaways to Hawaii for the board. I don’t begrudge a working vacation, but big categories undeniably make it difficult to evaluate financial stewardship. Trolls on the internet talk a lot of smack about the ABR’s supposed largesse, but all we’ve really seen is a generous chief executive salary, a large pile of money in reserve, and some broad expense categories that I’d love to drill down. Large boxes hide their contents.

But since we can’t break down the big boxes, we may never know details the radiology community is interested in seeing. One recent example would be, how much is the ABR paying to fight off that class-action lawsuit?

The best we can do is a wild guess because all “legal” expenses are a single category in the ABR’s publically available tax documents (most recent filings are available on Guidestar).

Legal fees according to ABR Form 990:
2011: $57,280
2012: $70,811
2013: $78,271
2014: $114,563
2015: $44,776
2016: $48,703
2017: $45,439
2018: $25,294
2019: $119,445

We can see that earlier in the last decade, the fees were all over the place but mostly in the high five figures with exception of 2014. We then had several years in a row of lower numbers, primarily in the $40k range.

The initial complaint in the class action ABR lawsuit was filed on February 26, 2019, and the case is still ongoing.

The reported legal fees in 2019 were $119,445.

The average of the preceding 4 years prior to 2019 was $41,051.

If the costs of the lawsuit were responsible for the difference, that would be approximately $80k to fight the lawsuit in 2019 over 10 months. Is all that excess actually the lawsuit? Who knows; I don’t think they were sued in 2014 and that was a pricey year as well. Some likely additional one-time fees that I can think of like trying to deal with the legalese debacle of the ABR agreement earlier this year won’t appear until the 2020 Form 990 that will be filed next year. But we definitely have an upper bound.

The ABR’s legal counsel has filed three motions dated 6/27/2019 (54 pages), 03/13/20 (54 pages), and 07/21/20 (26 pages). It would seem likely that the overall cost will be at least double the 2019 amount if not substantially more. Just extrapolating on page count would put the estimate at $200k so far (though I would venture the research for the initial motion to dismiss would have taken longer and cost more).

While the case seems destined for dismissal, certainly an actual trial would increase costs exponentially. These lawyers presumably don’t charge for value like radiologists; they charge for time.

In 2019, there were (according to the ABR) approximately 31,200 diplomates paying for MOC (the very thing the lawsuit is about). Our very broad completely unscientific estimate would therefore suggest that each MOC-compliant radiologist, through their annual fee, paid about $2.50 in 2019 against their own interests (depending on whose side you take), which is less than 1% of their dues and which is, if we’re being honest, a trivial sum.

If the judge dismisses the current amended complaint and the case is subsequently dropped without further back and forth, then a non-grandfathered MOC-radiologist might expect to have contributed the equivalent of a beverage of indeterminate size and composition to support the ABR’s hegemony.

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