Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamil. Cty Hosp.

Decision Date13 February 2008
Docket NumberNo. E2006-00064-SC-R11-CV.,E2006-00064-SC-R11-CV.
Citation249 S.W.3d 346
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

William T. Ramsey, Nashville, Tennessee, Jennifer H. Lawrence and Mathew D. Brownfield, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, John P. Konvalinka.

Fred H. Moore, Joseph R. White, and James H. Payne, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellee, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority, d/b/a Erlanger Hospital.


WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which WILLIAM M. BARKER, C.J., JANICE M. HOLDER, CORNELIA A. CLARK, and GARY R. WADE, JJ., joined.

This appeal involves a civil contempt proceeding originating in the Court of Appeals. The intermediate appellate court granted an interlocutory appeal to address a discovery dispute in a lawsuit between a physician and a public hospital regarding the physician's staff privileges. In its order granting the interlocutory appeal, the court stayed "all proceedings below" while the appeal was pending. Despite the stay order, one of the physician's lawyers, being represented by the other, filed suit in his own name in the Chancery Court for Hamilton County seeking access to the records involved in the discovery dispute, as well as other records, under Tennessee's public records statutes. The hospital filed a motion with the intermediate appellate court requesting that the attorneys be held in contempt for willfully disobeying its stay order. The intermediate appellate court found that the attorneys had willfully violated the stay order and, therefore, that they were in direct civil contempt. The court also ordered the attorneys to pay the hospital's attorney's fees relating to the contempt proceeding. We granted the attorneys' application for permission to appeal to determine whether the Court of Appeals properly held the attorneys in contempt. The intermediate appellate court's stay order can reasonably be interpreted to apply only to the pending legal and administrative proceedings between the physician and the hospital. Therefore, the record does not support the Court of Appeals' finding that the attorneys willfully violated its stay order when they filed the separate public records suit against the hospital.


Dr. Alexander A. Stratienko and Dr. Van Stephen Monroe are cardiologists with medical staff privileges at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga.1 On September 16, 2004, they were involved in an altercation in the break room of the hospital's cardiac catheterization laboratory. Based on a report that Dr. Stratienko had "hit, pushed or shoved" Dr. Monroe, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority, the owner and operator of Erlanger Hospital, summarily suspended Dr. Stratienko's staff privileges.

Dr. Stratienko retained Chattanooga lawyers, John P. Konvalinka and Jennifer H. Lawrence, to contest the suspension of his staff privileges. On September 20, 2004, the attorneys filed suit in the Circuit Court for Hamilton County against the Hospital Authority and others. The suit requested the trial court to enjoin the suspension of Dr. Stratienko's privileges.2 The circuit court issued an ex parte temporary restraining order prohibiting the Hospital Authority and the hospital from suspending Dr. Stratienko's staff privileges pending a hearing. Several days later, the hospital's Credentials Committee and its Medical Executive Committee reviewed the matter and decided to suspend Dr. Stratienko's privileges. In a letter dated September 27, 2004, the Hospital Authority informed Dr. Stratienko that his staff privileges would be suspended, that he would be required to apologize to Dr. Monroe, and that he would be required to be evaluated by the Tennessee Medical Foundation's Physicians Health Program. The letter also informed Dr. Stratienko of his administrative appeal rights and that the suspension would be held in abeyance pending the resolution of the temporary restraining order.

The Hospital Authority later filed a motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order and to assess monetary damages against Dr. Stratienko. The circuit court, however, declined to rule on the motion until Dr. Stratienko had an opportunity to conduct discovery. During the discovery process, Dr. Stratienko requested the Hospital Authority to provide him, among other things, with information concerning Dr. Monroe's credentials. The Hospital Authority declined to produce the requested information on the ground that it was protected from disclosure by the Tennessee Peer Review Law of 1967.3 Dr. Stratienko filed a motion to compel the production of these records. The circuit court denied the motion but granted Dr. Stratienko permission to pursue an interlocutory appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. On May 17, 2005, the Court of Appeals filed an order granting permission to appeal. The order stated that "[a]ll proceedings below, including the administrative hearing currently scheduled for June 2, 2005 are stayed pending resolution of this [i]nterlocutory [a]ppeal."4

On October 14, 2005, while the stay pending appeal was still in effect, Mr. Konvalinka sent a letter to the Hospital Authority requesting access to a wide variety of hospital records under the federal Freedom of Information Act5 and Tennessee's public records statutes.6 In addition to the documents pertaining directly to the suspension of Dr. Stratienko's privileges, the information Mr. Konvalinka requested included documents that he had requested the Hospital Authority to produce on two occasions in 2003 before the suspension of Dr. Stratienko's privileges.7 Mr. Konvalinka also demanded "all documents containing, referring or related to all peripheral vascular credentialing requirements in effect from the date of Dr. Monroe's initiation of the credentialing process to the present." The Hospital Authority did not respond to Mr. Konvalinka's letter.

On November 16, 2005, Mr. Konvalinka, represented by Ms. Lawrence, filed a suit in his own name in the Chancery Court for Hamilton County seeking an order requiring the Hospital Authority to provide the records sought in his October 14, 2005 letter. On November 29, 2005, the chancery court held a hearing to give the Hospital Authority an opportunity to show cause why it should not be compelled to produce the records requested by Mr. Konvalinka. The Hospital Authority argued, among other things, that it should not be required to produce the requested records because both Mr. Konvalinka's October 14, 2005 letter and his lawsuit violated the Court of Appeals' May 17, 2005 order staying "all proceedings below" pending the resolution of Dr. Stratienko's interlocutory appeal. The Hospital Authority also informed the chancery court that it had prepared, but had not yet filed, a petition to hold Mr. Konvalinka in contempt of the Court of Appeals' May 17, 2005 order. The threat of a possible contempt citation did not deter Mr. Konvalinka.

The chancery court filed its memorandum opinion and order on December 7, 2005. Noting that the May 17, 2005 stay order had been entered by the Court of Appeals, the chancery court declined to interpret or change the order and stated instead that Mr. Konvalinka could seek interpretation and clarification of the order from the Court of Appeals. It also directed the Hospital Authority to produce two of the nineteen categories of records sought by Mr. Konvalinka because they were not directly relevant to Dr. Stratienko's lawsuit against the Hospital Authority. The chancery court declined to order the Hospital Authority to release the remaining records, stating:

Because all other requests relate, or could relate to the Stratienko case, the court is going to deny those requests. First, this court looks not only to the language but also the spirit of the Court of Appeals' stay order. Second, the Petitioner should be able to receive these documents through the discovery mechanisms available pursuant to the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure in the Stratienko case.

Mr. Konvalinka filed a timely notice of appeal from the chancery court's order.

On December 19, 2005, the Hospital Authority filed a motion with the Court of Appeals to have both Mr. Konvalinka and Ms. Lawrence held in contempt. While conceding that Mr. Konvalinka's petition for access to public records was a "separate cause of action," the Hospital Authority insisted that Mr. Konvalinka and Ms. Lawrence had willfully failed and refused to comply with and had blatantly disregarded the Court of Appeals' May 17, 2005 stay order by seeking access to records relevant to the dispute between Dr. Stratienko and the Hospital Authority under the public records statutes. The Court of Appeals eventually decided to hear and adjudicate the contempt matter contemporaneously with Mr. Konvalinka's appeal from the chancery court's December 7, 2005 order denying most of his public records requests.

On July 20, 2006, the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments regarding Mr. Konvalinka's appeal from the chancery court's denial of most of his public records requests. In an opinion filed on September 11, 2006, the court first determined that the documents Mr. Konvalinka had requested in both his 2003 letters and his October 14, 2005 letter were not covered by its May 17, 2005 stay order and, therefore, that the chancery court had properly ordered the Hospital Authority to release these two of the specific categories of records. Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hosp. Auth., No. E2006-00064-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 2596781, at *7-8 (Tenn.Ct.App. Sept.11, 2006). The court also concluded that the chancery court had not erred by denying Mr. Konvalinka's request for attorney's fees.

The Court of Appeals then turned its attention to the Hospital Authority's contempt petition. Because there had been no evidentiary hearing on the contempt petition, the court based its decision solely on the record of the...

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