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Hospital granted complete immunity for "unfounded" defamatory comments regarding suspended physician

This week the Court of Appeals reversed its prior decision in Copeland v. MidMichigan Regional Medical Center, and upheld the summary disposition of the neurosurgeon's defamation claim against the hospital that took away his surgical privileges.  In what appears to be a story of unmitigated tragedy for a young doctor, Brian Copeland contracted Hepatitis C during his residency and was forced to take a leave of absence from Mid Michigan Hospital's staff during the spring of 2010.  When he returned to perform 2 of 5 scheduled surgeries, the Hospital claimed that it received an anonymous report that his behavior suggested a substance abuse problem, and his privileges were summarily withdrawn pending completion of counseling at the Professional Renewal Center in Lawrence, Kansas, even though the hospital's Medical Executive Committee could not substantiate any substance abuse issue.

The latter facility found that the allegations against Copeland were "unsupported" and that he was "healthy and fit to perform the duties of a neurosurgeon.  He was then reinstated by Mid Michigan on a limited basis.  Copeland sued the hospital, arguing that its conduct in response to the anonymous complaint was grossly negligent, that it lacked due process, that it was either malicious or reckless, and that it also constituted a violation of the act barring adverse employment actions against persons with perceived disabilities that are unrelated to employment.

The local judge summarily dismissed the case against the local hospital, and the doctor appealed.  The Court of Appeals panel hearing the case initially overturned the lower court decision and remanded the case for trial on the merits.  The Hospital sought rehearing and persuaded the Court of Appeals panel to dismiss the claim, after all.  It ruled that when Copeland signed his (mandatory) privilege agreement with the hospital, he granted the hospital complete immunity from any claim involving his surgical privileges.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that the hospital could exercise its "peer review" privilege to refuse to identify the author of the defamatory claim that resulted in his suspension.  It also held that Copeland had "waived" his peer review argument that he was entitled to know all facts underlying his suspension.The panel also held that Copeland had not established malicious conduct or gross negligence, and rejected his claim that the combination of the peer review statute  and other statutes made it procedurally impossible for him to prove a claim of wrongful conduct.  The Court affirmed the trial judge's decision to limit Copeland's discovery before granting summary disposition.  It agreed with Copeland's argument that the trial judge should not have summarily rejected his claim that the Hospital acted with actual malice based on its misperception that he was disabled by Hepatits C, but nevertheless deemed this error "harmless."  It reached this questionable conclusion based on its own assessment of "what a reasonable person could believe" from the facts adduced, and the conclusion that the Hospital could not have deemed Copeland to be disabled.

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