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Talley v. Christiana Care Health System

United States District Court, D. Delaware

October 11, 2018

LYNN E. TALLEY, D.O., Plaintiff,

          Michele D. Allen and Catilyn E. Quinn, LAW OFFICES OF MICHELE D. ALLEN, LLC, Hockessin, DE, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Joanna J. Cline and James H. S. Levine, PEPPER HAMILTON LLP, Wilmington, DE; Barbara T. Sicalides, Barak A. Bassman, and Megan Morley, PEPPER HAMILTON LLP, Philadelphia, PA, Attorneys for Defendants.


          BURKE, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Lynn Talley ("Plaintiff') filed this action alleging violations of the Sherman Act, breach of contract, lack of procedural due process, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, interference with prospective economic advantage, tortious interference with contractual relations, and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. (D.I. 17) Presently before the Court is the motion of Defendants Christiana Care Health System ("Christiana Care"), Matthew K. Hoffman, M.D. ("Dr. Hoffman"), and Kenneth L. Silverstein, M.D. ("Dr. Silverstein") (collectively, "Defendants") seeking to dismiss Counts I-VIII of the operative First Amended Complaint ("FAC"), filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (the "Motion"). (D.I. 22) This opinion addresses only the portion of Defendants' Motion seeking dismissal of the Sherman Act claim, and GRANTS the Motion with prejudice in that regard.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         1. The Parties

         Plaintiff is a board-certified physician in the field of obstetrics and gynecology ("OB-GYN"). (D.I. 17 at ¶¶ 2, 15) She is a resident of Pennsylvania and previously had a private practice in Newark, Delaware. (Id. at ¶¶ 2, 10)

         Christiana Care, a teaching hospital, is a private, non-profit corporation with its headquarters located in Newark, Delaware. (Id. at ¶ 3, 34)[1] Dr. Hoffman works in Delaware as the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Christiana Care. (Id. at ¶ 4) Dr. Silverstein works in Delaware as the Chief Clinical Officer of Christiana Care. (Id. at ¶ 5)

         2. Plaintiffs Tenure at Christiana Care and the Events Leading to Her Termination

         Plaintiff, a member of the Medical-Dental Staff at Christiana Care from 1982 until her termination in July 15, 2016, was granted privileges to practice medicine at Christiana Care in accordance with the Medical-Dental Staff Bylaws ("Bylaws") and the Medical-Dental Staff Credentials Manual ("Credentials Manual"). (Id. at ¶¶ 16-17) Plaintiff was a member of the Safety First Committee of Christiana Care, which reviewed specific cases of concern, evaluated safety processes, and established protocols. (Id. at ¶ 21-22) After Plaintiff expressed concerns during Safety First Committee meetings regarding patient safety related to Christiana Care's policy and procedures, Christiana Care placed Plaintiff on a "Focused Professional Practice Evaluation[, ]" which required Plaintiffs professional judgement to be "second guessed by attendees who had significantly less experience and knowledge than Plaintiff about her patients[.]" (Id. at ¶ 23) Plaintiff alleges that Christiana Care took this step in order to "humiliate, harass [, ] and retaliate against her." (Id. at ¶ 26)

         On July 7, 2014, Plaintiff had a verbal altercation with the former Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and was thereafter "forced" to take a voluntary leave of absence. (Id. at ¶¶ 27-28) Plaintiff states she was threatened that if she did not take the leave of absence, she would be subjected to worse consequences. (Id. at ¶ 29) Plaintiff was "cleared" to return to work less than a month later, but she asserts that Christiana Care did not actually allow her to return to work until August 22, 2014. (Id. at ¶¶ 30-31)

         Plaintiff further alleges that Christiana Care "forc[ed] residents to 'spy' on [her] and encourage[ed] them to make reports/complaints against [her]." (Id. at ¶ 33) This caused an environment at the hospital where residents challenged Plaintiffs "professional opinions and clinical judgments [] without any basis." (Id. at ¶ 35) Plaintiff states that residents were told that Christiana Care was '"gathering evidence' against Plaintiff[;]" for example, Residency Director Dr. Anthony Sciscione allegedly encouraged residents to monitor Plaintiff and complain about Plaintiffs clinical judgments, despite the fact that "numerous other colleagues had stated Plaintiffs clinical practice skills were excellent[.]" (Id. at ¶¶ 36-38) Plaintiff alleges that Dr. Sciscione used his influential position to cause the residents to make these "unsubstantiated complaints" against Plaintiff, which were "blindly accepted." (Id. at ¶¶ 41-43) Based on two such resident complaints, on July 14, 2015, Plaintiff was removed from teaching service for four weeks. (Id. at ¶ 44)

         Then, around March 24, 2016, Christiana Care precautionary suspended Plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 47) This suspension came about because of Christiana Care's stated concern that Plaintiffs behavior and interactions did not promote a working environment that was "conducive to team-based patient care" or to the "education of residents." (Id. at ¶ 49) Plaintiff submitted her response to the precautionary suspension to Dr. Silverstein on April 4, 2016. (Id. at ¶ 48)

         Because her privileges were now suspended, Plaintiff had to seek immediate coverage for her patients. (Id. at ¶ 53) Plaintiff asserts that Christiana Care's ultimate intention was for its OB-GYN hospitalists and its OB-GYN group in Greenville, Delaware to absorb Plaintiffs patients. (Id. at ¶ 55)

         Around April 9, 2016, Plaintiffs patient (referred to as "Patient B" in the FAC) was allegedly told by a Christiana Care nurse that Plaintiff would no longer be working at Christiana Care because Plaintiff had lost her privileges. (Id. at ¶ 56) Patient B was referred to the Christiana Care Greenville OB-GYN practice and to another non-Christiana Care facility, (id. at ¶ 57), and ultimately switched her OB-GYN care to the non-Christiana Care facility, (id. at ¶ 59).

         Around April 11, 2016, another patient's (referred to as "Patient D" in the FAC) spouse was wrongly informed that Plaintiff was "removed from staff." (Id. at ¶ 62) Patient D's spouse, angry upon hearing this, went to Plaintiffs office and belligerently announced to everyone in Plaintiffs waiting room that Plaintiff was no longer at Christiana Care. (Id. at ¶¶ 63-64)

         Plaintiffs suspension was lifted on April 23, 2016 and her full privileges were restored. (Id. at ¶¶ 67-68) But less than two months later, on July 13, 2016, Dr. Hoffman called Plaintiff and informed her that she would be terminated from the Medical-Dental Staff of Christiana Care, effective July 15, 2016 at 5:00 p.m. (Id. at ¶ 72) On the same date (July 13, 2016) as Plaintiff received the call from Dr. Hoffman, Dr. Silverstein sent a letter to Plaintiff, which reiterated that Plaintiffs privileges would be terminated as of July 15. (Id. at ¶ 83; D.I. 23, ex. A)[2] The letter explained that Christiana Care's Board had previously approved a renewal of Plaintiff s privileges only on certain conditions, including that Plaintiff have "no further workplace concerns regarding behavioral or clinical issues found by the Dept. of OB/GYN peer review committee to constitute at risk or reckless behavior." (D.I. 23, ex. A) The letter went on to state that on July 12, 2016, "the Professional Excellence Committee ... reviewed two workplace concerns [and] determined that [they] were substantiated and constituted unacceptable at-risk behavior" and thus that Plaintiffs "medical staff membership and clinical privileges have been revoked." (Id.)

         Plaintiff alleges that her termination was contrary to the Manual and Bylaws, because the decision was "not reviewed by any reviewing committee, including but not limited to the Medical Executive Committee[.]" (Id. at ¶ 76) She asserts that prior to any change affecting her staff privileges, either Dr. Hoffman or the designated departmental committee was required to: (1) report in writing the grounds suggesting the need for corrective action against her; (2) report any prior peer reviewed actions to date; and (3) recommend specific corrective/disciplinary action. (Id. at ¶ 78) But according to Plaintiff, no such report was ever prepared by Dr. Hoffman or others, prior to her termination. (Id. at ¶ 79) And according to Plaintiff, if any such report was generated, it should have been submitted to and considered by the Staff Credentials Committee and (if that committee decided that further corrective or disciplinary action was necessary) the Medical Executive Committee. (Id. at ¶ 80) According to Plaintiff, however, no committee, including the Staff Credentials Committee or the Medical Executive Committee, made any recommendation regarding the termination of her privileges. (Id. at ¶¶ 81-82) Instead, according to Plaintiff, Dr. Silverstein "took unilateral action" to terminate her privileges. (Id. at ¶83)

         Plaintiff asserts that after termination of her privileges, she attempted to have another solo practitioner assist her with the transition and care of her patients. (Id. at ¶ 88) According to Plaintiff, however, Defendants "threatened" the solo practitioner and told him that he "had to sign" an agreement prepared by Christiana Care's counsel, which stated that he would not assist Plaintiff with coverage for her patients. (Id. at ¶¶ 88-89)

         There was a provision in Plaintiffs lease with the owner of the building that housed Plaintiffs private practice office; the provision required Plaintiff to maintain privileges at Christiana Care. (Id. at ¶ 102) After losing privileges, Plaintiff was granted one year to sell the property. (Id. at ¶ 103) Christiana Care held a right of first refusal and exercised that right to prevent Plaintiff from selling the property to another practitioner. (Id. at ¶ 104) Plaintiff asserts that if Christiana Care gains 51% control of this building, it will be able to make the other building tenants sell their offices for fair market value. (Id. at ¶ 105)

         B. ...

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