We addressed a similar question in an earlier article. At that time, we discussed the issue of whether a Medical Staff can have standing to sue its own hospital. We cautioned in that article to “be careful what you ask for.” If a Medical Staff asserts autonomy and wishes to sue on its on behalf, it could logically follow that the same Medical Staff could then also be sued for its conduct.
In Frederick Nahas, M.D. v. Shore Medical Center, et al 2018 WL 1981474 (April 27, 2018) the United Stated District Court for the District of New Jersey held that the Medical Executive Committee (MEC) of Shore Medical Center’s Medical Staff could, in fact, be sued separately from the Hospital.
In that case, Dr. Nahas alleged that the MEC, among other individuals and committees, engaged in a malicious peer review process which ultimately had a negative impact on Dr. Nahas’ privileges at Shore Medical Center. The only issue before the District Court was whether or not Dr. Nahas’ claim against the MEC could proceed.
The Court first noted that there was no New Jersey case law addressing whether an MEC has the capacity to sue or be sued. The Court referenced several cases in which the Medical Staff or its MEC had been named as a defendant but explained that case law did not directly address the question of the Medical Staff or MEC could be actual parties to the litigation. Ultimately, the Court citing a New Jersey statute (similar to statutes in several other states) which allows an unincorporated organization or association to sue or be sued, held that the MEC could be named as a defendant. That analysis seems to be the centerpiece of the Court’s rationale in Nahas. The Court found that the Medical Staff was “separate and distinct” from the Hospital and even its own individual members thus satisfying the criteria for an unincorporated association. The Court also noted that the Plaintiff could have potentially sued all members of the MEC individually but to do so would have served no useful purpose. In several instances, the Court cited the Medical Staff Bylaws, which defined both the Medical Staff and the MEC, to support its conclusion that those “bodies” are distinguishable from the hospital.
Lastly, the Court explained that since the Healthcare Quality Improvement Act (HCQIA) immunizes “the professional review body” of a hospital. Since a “professional review body” means a healthcare entity and includes any committee of the medical staff when assisting the governing body in a professional review activity, the Act, by its very nature, acknowledges that committees such as the MEC can be sued. The Nahas Court reasoned that to provide immunity to a body which is not subject to a legal claim would be meaningless.
The Nahas decision is thorough and detailed and will, most likely, withstand scrutiny. Accordingly, from a practical perspective we note that medical staffs and the various committees of the medical staff need to be fully aware of at least the possibility that they could find themselves in the midst of litigation (now, perhaps, as parties). From a practical perspective, it is important to note that while a hospital typically provides insurance coverage for individuals and committees involved in the peer review process, some physicians may be less likely to participate in that process if cases similar to Nahas become commonplace.
The attorneys at FL&B have experience representing physicians and medical staffs in bylaw, structural and peer review matters. For more information, please contact Joseph A. Bubba, or any other attorney in our Healthcare Practice.