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High court reverses $900K award for ER doc

Pressure to fire not ‘tortious interference’

Alan Cooper//June 14, 2011

High court reverses $900K award for ER doc

Pressure to fire not ‘tortious interference’

Alan Cooper//June 14, 2011

The Supreme Court of Virginia has set aside a $900,000 judgment for an emergency-room doctor who said hospital officials pressured her practice group to fire her because she supported disgruntled ER nurses.

A Roanoke City jury awarded the damages to Dr. Karen Alldredge, who claimed administrators at Lewis-Gale Medical Center LLC in Roanoke wanted her fired because of her “involvement” in drafting a letter to hospital administrators with the nurses’ work-related complaints.

After the letter hit the hospital and the doctor’s role became known, the hospital’s chief nursing officer asked the doctor’s employer, Southwest Emergency Physicians Inc., what plan it had “to deal with Doctor Alldredge.”

The hospital’s chief operating officer described Dr. Alldredge as an “organizational terrorist.” But the COO denied ever asking that the doctor be fired by Southwest.

When the Southwest board met to discuss Dr. Alldredge, minutes of the meeting reflected concerns about Dr. Alldredge’s “treatment of other partners and group members” and “her behavior over the years.”

But the principal concern cited by the board was a fear that retention of Dr. Alldredge as a Southwest employee could jeopardize Southwest’s contract with the hospital.

After Dr. Alldredge had a final meeting with hospital administrators to try and save her job, the Southwest board voted to terminate her employment of three years with Southwest.

Alldredge sued for tortious interference with contract, claiming hospital administrators had used “threats” and “improper methods” to persuade Southwest to fire her.

She didn’t get the $10 million in damages she sought, but a Roanoke jury awarded her nearly $1 million.

The Supreme Court of Virginia threw out the damages award, agreeing with the defendant that Dr. Alldredge’s tortious interference claim should not have gone to the jury.

Even though she may have had an expectation of continued employment, Dr. Alldredge was an at-will employee under her contract with Southwest, the Supreme Court said. She could be fired for any legal reason, or no reason, with 90 days’ notice.

When an at-will employee sues for tortious interference, she has to prove intentional conduct by the defendant, and that the defendant used improper methods, wrote Senior Justice Lawrence L. Koontz Jr.

The high court cited its April decision in Dunn, McCormack & MacPherson v. Connolly (VLW 011-6-053), for a catalogue of conduct that can be pegged as “improper,” ranging from violence, bribery and duress to breach of a fiduciary duty.

But Koontz said the Supreme Court has refused to expand the parameters of “improper methods” to include “actions solely motivated by spite, ill will and malice” toward a plaintiff.

Dr. Alldredge said the hospital used “intimidation, duress and undue influence,” elements cited in Dunn, to convince Southwest to terminate her employment.

But the at-will nature of Southwest’s own contract with the hospital meant Southwest had to be “continually sensitive to the possibility of termination for any reason or no reason, regardless of any specific action or comment” made by Lewis-Gale personnel, wrote Koontz.

There may have been “inherent intimidation or duress” in the relationship between the hospital and its ER contractor, but that did not mean the hospital interfered improperly with Dr. Alldredge’s contract.

Statements about the doctor, such as the “organizational terrorist” remark, may have been “unwise, unprofessional hyperbole,” and may even have shown a personal animus, Koontz said, but they still did not amount to “improper conduct” for the tort claim.

A unanimous court reversed the judgment for the doctor and entered final judgment for the hospital.

The law only provides a remedy when a defendant’s actions were illegal or fell far outside the accepted practice of the “rough and tumble world” of the competitive marketplace, Koontz said.

Roanoke lawyer Frank K. Friedman argued the case for Lewis-Gale. He said the Supreme Court held that “it’s not a tort to do what you have a legal right to do.”

He said the relationship of the parties and the absence of a “fire her or else” threat made it an easier case for the court. In a physician-hospital setting, “You have to have communication, and it needs to be free and candid,” he said. It was communication rather than any effort to gain commercial advantage that was at the center of the relationship, Friedman said.

Powell M. Leitch III of Roanoke and Michael S. Kelley of Knoxville, Tenn., represented the hospital at trial.

John P. Fishwick Jr. of Roanoke represented Alldredge at trial and on appeal. “We are studying the court’s opinion and are reviewing our options,” he said, declining further comment.

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