State College-based Geisinger Clinic not immune from lawsuit, panel says

Doctor alleges defamation over negative report

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Superior Court has refused to let State College-based Geisinger Clinic out of a lawsuit filed by a doctor alleging defamation after it issued a report stating he was fired over concerns about his "professional conduct and clinical competency and/or judgment."

A three-judge panel reversed a Centre County trial court's ruling granting Geisinger's motion for summary judgment on the basis of immunity under the Health Care Quality Improvement Act, which mandates that hospitals issue a National Practitioner Data Bank Report when a physician joins a hospital and every two years after that.

Judge Sallie Updyke Mundy, writing for the majority, did affirm the trial court's granting of summary judgment to defendants Centre Community Hospital, Robin E. Oliver and Michael J. Chmielewski.

Judge Mundy was joined by Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen. Judge Susan Peikes Gantman concurred in the result, but did not write a separate opinion.

In Babb v. Centre Community Hospital, Terrance E. Babb joined Geisinger as a physician in its OB/GYN Clinic in State College in September 1995, around the same time as Dr. Oliver.

In July 1996, Dr. Chmielewski also joined Geisinger's clinic, but the relationship between Dr. Babb and the two others soon began to sour, with Dr. Babb filing professional complaints against Dr. Chmielewski and Dr. Oliver, and Dr. Chmielewski and others filing complaints against Dr. Babb, according to Judge Mundy.

After a performance review, Dr. Babb was recommended for reappointment, but Geisinger requested his resignation. When he refused, Geisinger fired him in May 1997, saying it was concerned with the quality of his care, Judge Mundy said.

Dr. Babb had a hearing under Geisinger's Peer Review Fair Hearing Plan. In March 1998, a hearing panel found the evidence supported allegations Dr. Babb did not work cooperatively with his colleagues and staff and that he was "constantly delinquent" in filling out charts and may have altered medical records, according to Judge Mundy.

The judge said the committee also found the evidence supported allegations that in some cases, Dr. Babb failed to make a proper diagnosis, used inappropriate operative procedures, failed to perform proper pre-operative evaluations of urological procedures and used "antiquated approaches to pelvic exams."

In June 1998, Geisinger submitted a report stating the termination was "based upon concerns regarding the practitioner's professional conduct and clinical competency and/or judgment."

While working for Geisinger, Dr. Babb had clinical privileges with Centre Community, which were withdrawn upon his firing since he lost his malpractice insurance. When he reapplied for those privileges in July 1999, the hospital requested information pursuant to Geisinger's report. Geisinger refused to release it unless Dr. Babb signed a release, which he refused to do.

Centre Community denied his reapplication and filed its own report, saying it denied Dr. Babb's privileges, according to Judge Mundy.

Meanwhile, Dr. Babb had filed a writ of summons in the Centre County against Geisinger and Drs. Oliver and Chmielewski in May 1998. In October 2001, Dr. Babb filed a complaint against those defendants, which he followed up with an amended complaint that added Centre Community as a party in January 2002, according to Judge Mundy.

Against Geisinger, Drs. Oliver and Chmielewski, Dr. Babb sought monetary damages for breach of contract and illegal retaliation in violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. Against all of the defendants, he sought damages for defamation, intentional interference with contractual relations and civil conspiracy. Dr. Babb sought injunctive relief against Geisinger and Centre Community Hospital for the alleged defamation, according to Judge Mundy.

In May 2011, Centre County President Judge David E. Grine granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment with regard to the counts seeking damages, finding they had immunity.

legalnews

Zack Needles: 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com. First Published July 2, 2012 12:00 AM


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