King v. Sioux City Radiological Group P.C.

Decision Date20 November 1997
Docket NumberNo. C96-4026-MWB.,C96-4026-MWB.
Citation985 F.Supp. 869
PartiesGary KING and Shirley King, Plaintiffs, v. SIOUX CITY RADIOLOGICAL GROUP, P.C., Dr. Daryl C. Rife, Dr. Thomas R. Gleason, Dr. Gregory R. Jackson, Dr. Charles E. Flohr, and Dr. Calvin F. Andersen, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

Patricia K. Wenger, John P. Roehrick, Roehrick, Hulting, Blumberg, Kirlin & Krull, P.C., Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiffs.

Daniel L. Hartnett, Crary, Huff, Inkster, Hecht & Sheehan, South Sioux City, NE, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT.

BENNETT, District Judge.

                                           TABLE OF CONTENTS
                  I. INTRODUCTION ......................................................... 873
                 II. LEGAL ANALYSIS ....................................................... 875
                     A. Standards For Summary Judgment .................................... 875
                     B. Defamation ........................................................ 876
                        1. Defamation and defamation "per se" ............................. 876
                        2. Qualified privilege ............................................ 878
                     C. Tortious interference with contract or business advantage ......... 881
                        1. Tortious interference with contract or business advantage ...... 881
                        2. Interference with at-will employment ........................... 882
                        3. Summary judgment on the Kings' tortious interference claim ..... 885
                III. CONCLUSION ........................................................... 886
                

Is this a case of a hospital administrator defamed and hounded out of his position by doctors in the department he managed who had a vendetta against him, or a case of unsupportable claims by an employee terminated after performing poorly at his job and alienating members of his support staff, medical staff, and his own superiors? Although on cross-motions for summary judgment, it is not the court's task to weigh the evidence and answer these questions, it is the court's task to determine whether the plaintiff has generated genuine issues of material fact on his claims such that he may present these questions to a jury. The plaintiff contends that he is entitled to partial summary judgment on his defamation claim to the effect that certain statements-accusing him of incompetence and being a liar—are, as a matter of law, defamatory per se. The defendants, doctors in the hospital department the plaintiff formerly managed, assert that, even if the statements in question are defamatory per se, they were made subject to a qualified privilege, and hence the doctors can incur no liability for making them. The doctors also contend that there is no genuine issue of material fact that they did not tortiously interfere with the administrator's at-will employment with the hospital. Testing the record for genuine issues of material fact, rather than weighing the evidence for truth, the court considers these cross-motions for summary judgment and partial summary judgment.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs Gary and Shirley King filed this lawsuit in the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County on February 15, 1996, asserting claims arising from the termination on January 31, 1995, of Gary King's employment as the Technical Director of Radiology at St. Luke's Regional Medical Center in Sioux City, Iowa. On March 8, 1996, the defendants removed the Kings' action to this federal court on the basis of diversity of citizenship, because the Kings had become residents and citizens of the state of Tennessee before this lawsuit was filed.

The defendants in this action originally included King's former employer, St. Luke's Regional Medical Center, and St. Luke's employees Gary Rees, Vice President for Human Relations, and Terry Feenstra, Vice President for Ambulatory Care. However, on September 17, 1997, the parties stipulated to the dismissal with prejudice of all claims of the Kings against these defendants. Some confusion has been engendered concerning the status of these defendants by the Kings' filing of an amended and substituted complaint and jury demand on October 3, 1997, that still identifies St. Luke's, Rees, and Feenstra as defendants, reiterates counts I through IV of the original complaint, which were brought exclusively against these defendants, and includes these defendants in count VII. However, it is the court's view, in light of the stipulated dismissal with prejudice of all claims of the Kings against these defendants, that their inclusion in the amended and substituted complaint and jury demand filed on October 3, 1997, was inadvertent. These defendants have been dismissed from this action and the court considers that no claims are currently pending against them.

The remaining defendants are Dr. Daryl C. Rife, Dr. Thomas R. Gleason, Dr. Gregory R. Jackson, Dr. Charles E. Flohr, Dr. Calvin F. Andersen, all radiologists, and their professional corporation, Sioux City Radiological Group, P.C., which provided radiological services for St. Luke's. The remaining defendants will be referred to collectively as SCRG, unless the context dictates otherwise.

Gary King's claims against SCRG are for tortious interference with his contract of employment with St. Luke's and for defamation. Shirley King asserts a claim for loss of consortium. On October 3, 1997, the Kings filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the ground that the statements upon which Gary King's defamation claim is based are libel per se. On October 15, 1997, SCRG moved for summary judgment on both the tortious interference claim and the defamation claim, and hence on the loss of consortium claim. Neither the Kings nor SCRG requested oral arguments on either of the summary judgment motions.

The court will not attempt here an exhaustive statement of the undisputed and disputed facts of the case.1 Instead, the court will discuss disputed and undisputed facts pertinent to each claim to the extent necessary to resolve the cross-motions for summary judgment or partial summary judgment on that claim. However, a brief statement of the factual backdrop for the various claims in this action is provided here to place the court's legal analysis in context.

Gary King served as the Technical Director of Radiology at St. Luke's, an administrative, non-physician position, from mid-April of 1990 until he was terminated effective January 31, 1995. He has since taken a similar position as director of radiology at a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. SCRG has an exclusive contract with St. Luke's to provide radiology interpretation services to the hospital. Thus, King was the technical director for the hospital's radiology department, responsible for technical and support staff and equipment, while SCRG and its doctors provided the medical services in the department.

It is undisputed that during 1993, King's relationship with the doctors in the radiology department became strained. Precisely why that is so is a matter of some dispute, however. King alleges that he had attempted to address rumors about a supposed extra-marital affair between one of the doctors and a radiology technician, and complaints about favoritism of that doctor towards that technician, inappropriate behavior and horseplay between the two in the workplace, and alleged poor treatment by that doctor of other staff members. SCRG contend that the tension arose from King's attempts to exploit groundless rumors about an affair between one of the doctors and the radiology technician to his political advantage within the department and from King's failure to perform his job adequately. Certainly, matters came to a head, not for the last time, in November of 1993, when Terry Feenstra became the hospital's vice president responsible for the radiology department. At about the same time, Dr. Jackson, one of the members of SCRG and the medical director of the radiology department, announced that he was stepping down, leaving a vacancy in the medical director's position. On November 1, 1993, one of the other doctors of the group approached Terry Feenstra and told him that he would become the medical director of radiology, but only on the condition that King be terminated. One of the reasons that doctor gave for this condition was his distaste for the way in which King had handled the rumors concerning the supposed affair between that doctor and the radiology technician. Feenstra declined to fire King, and so informed the doctor on November 17, 1993. Another doctor eventually became the medical director of radiology.

In a meeting between Feenstra and King on November 19, 1993, Feenstra told King of the doctor's demands and advised King to develop a chronology of events regarding that doctor's treatment of technical staff. Feenstra received that chronology from King sometime in November. Because the chronology indicated that both groups were working toward a resolution of staffing issues, Feenstra concluded that the matter was essentially closed.

Matters boiled over again in April and May of 1994. On May 11, 1994, the doctors of the SCRG group had a meeting with Feenstra at which the doctors aired a number of complaints concerning King's performance and that of his assistant, Diane McCulloch. At that meeting, the doctors also specifically requested that both King and McCulloch be terminated. As a result of that meeting, Feenstra prepared a letter dated May 13, 1994, of the doctors' complaints, which he asked Dr. Gleason to sign if he concurred in the statement of the issues. Dr. Gleason did sign and return that letter, which has been marked as Exhibit 1 in this litigation.2 It is undisputed that this letter forms the basis for King's defamation claim.

That letter, from Feenstra to Dr. Gleason, is marked "CONFIDENTIAL." It states that it was "written to document...

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