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Legal News
Court Upholds Psychiatrist's Award In Suit Against State Hospital
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 6 page 2-2

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upheld a lower court's award of nearly $1 million, including $25,000 in punitive damages, to David Springer, M.D., on February 15, for the Delaware Psychiatric Center's violation of his First Amendment rights (Psychiatric News, May 21, 2004).

Springer's claim was against Renata Henry, director of the state's Division of Alcoholism, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health, who declined to reinstate his contract after he wrote memos that cited numerous problems at the facility, including serious staffing shortages and demeaning treatment of patients.

"Having a physician lose his employment and potentially lose his ability to obtain employment anywhere as a punishment for speaking out will have a chilling effect on doctors' willingness to do so, to the detriment to patients' health," said Jane Orient, M.D., executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), which follows national physician whistleblower issues.

Springer, head of the medical staff and director of residency training at the state's only public psychiatric hospital, filed suit in October 2000, after Henry told him his independent contractor agreement would not be renewed because he did not apply for it. His contract had been renewed automatically for each of the nine previous years.

The order from Henry to reapply followed revelations by Springer that serious problems at the hospital were compromising patient safety. Prominent among his concerns were inadequate supervision of patients on suicide watches that led to preventable suicide attempts, extreme overcrowding, and escapes of civilly committed patients.

After he and others protested to state officials, Springer said, the staff was intimidated by threats from Henry's department.

"The evidence supports the jury finding that Henry acted at least recklessly or callously, if not intentionally or maliciously, with respect to Dr. Springer's constitutionally protected rights," Judge Dolores Sloviter, wrote for the three-judge panel in David T. Springer, M.D., v. Renata J. Henry.

Springer's suit against Henry in her capacity as director of the mental health division contended he was terminated because he spoke out about his patient-safety concerns.

"The First Amendment's protection of an employee's right to speak on matters of public concern extends to independent contractors," wrote Sloviter. "Henry has not seriously disputed that the contents of Dr. Springer's speech (i.e., a physician's critique of patient safety and unsafe working conditions) constitute matters of public concern."

The $998,895 jury award includes $285,464 for lost earnings, $588,431 for lost future earnings, and $100,000 for injury to his reputation.

Springer, now in private practice, has urged the state legislature to hold hearings on the treatment of patients at the hospital.

Orient said physician whistleblowers are in a precarious position because hospitals may place an adverse action against them in the National Practitioner Data Bank, which allows few appeals for physicians and can make them unemployable and unable to obtain privileges at hospitals. The law under which the data bank operates contains a bad-faith clause, but bad faith is extraordinarily difficult to prove, Orient said.

"That is what makes Dr. Springer's win so fantastic, because so many others have tried and failed to withstand hospital pressure," Orient said.

Andrew Schlafly, an AAPS attorney who filed an amicus brief in the case, said such punitive moves by hospitals against physicians who raise patient safety concerns are increasingly common.

"Part of the reason is that hospitals are getting more adversarial in their approach to physicians," he said. "It's an `us versus them' mentality."

He said the increasingly litigious approach of hospitals stems in part from legal advice they receive from their attorneys.

Recently courts have come to view retaliation against physicians through its adverse impact on patient care, which has led to judges increasingly ruling against hospitals and administrators that take action against whistleblowers, Schlafly said.

In one recent case, Poliner v. Texas Health Systems, a federal jury in Dallas awarded $366 million to a cardiologist who claimed that his practice was ruined when three fellow doctors and a hospital worked together to suspend his privileges to perform heart procedures. The August 2004 jury award was against the three doctors, who were held individually liable for breach of contract, defamation, interference with contractual relations, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

[David T. Springer, M.D., v. Renata J. Henry, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, No. 04-4124]

The ruling is posted at<www.aapsonline.org/judicial/044124p.pdf>.

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