The United States Supreme Court on March 21, 2011 denied a writ application by a physician who was appealing the lower Federal court’s decision dismissing the physician’s civil rights action against the University of Illinois where the physician alleged numerous violations of his constitutional rights. See Abcarian v. McDonald, 617 F.3d 931 (7th Cir. 2010), writ denied, No. 10-913 (2011). The physician had been the head of the Department of Surgery at the University when he was notified that a lawsuit was being contemplated against him due to the death of a former patient. The physician alleged that when the University learned of the potential lawsuit it conspired with other defendants to discredit the physician’s reputation and executed a settlement agreement with the deceased’s family. The physician further alleged that the settlement agreement was a step in a conspiracy to destroy his reputation because the settlement agreement was entered merely so the defendants could report the settlement of the medical malpractice claim to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and the National Practitioner Databank. The physician filed suit alleging free speech, equal protection and procedural due process claims against the defendants.
The District Court dismissed the free speech claim based on the fact that the physician’s speech on issues involving risk management, fees charged to physicians, and surgeon abuse of prescription medications was in the course of his official duties as a public employee. The Court of Appeals agreed finding that based on the allegations of the physician’s complaint, he spoke while discharging his responsibilities of office, not as a member of the general public. Because he was not merely a staff physician, but also the Chief of the Department of Surgery, the physician has significant authority and responsibility and, therefore, had a broader responsibility to speak in the course of his employment obligations.
The physician also argued that the defendants violated his equal protection rights by reporting the settlement involving him, but not the settlement of a medical malpractice claim against another physician. The Court of Appeal held that the District Court correctly dismissed the equal protection claim because under the law the defendant had no discretion in deciding whether to report the settlement. Because the defendants lacked discretion to report the settlement, the Court found that there is little risk of the kind of discriminatory action addressed by the 14th Amendment.
The physician also alleged that defendants violated his procedural due process rights by reporting the settlement to state and national authorities. The physician alleged the defendants defamed him and infringed his liberty to pursue his chosen occupation. However, the Court of Appeals held that in order for the physician to have a due process claim, the physician must plead a constitutionally relevant tangible loss of his employment opportunities and that his good name, reputation, honor, or integrity was called into question in a manner that makes it virtually impossible for him to find new employment in his chosen field. The physician in this case could not meet his burden because he still had his job at the University as a physician and a professor.
The physician had only alleged fear that he would not be able to be employed at additional healthcare institutions in the future. The Court of Appeals found that a physician cannot be denied liberty to pursue a particular occupation when he continues to hold the same job and the same occupation. The Court of Appeals also held that while a physician has a property interest in a medical license free from formal disciplinary sanction imposed without due process, a physician does not have a due process right to be exempt from the formal disciplinary processes itself.
The Court of Appeals decision upholding the dismissal of the physician’s civil rights claims is final due to the U.S. Supreme Court denying the physician’s writ application.