Ostrzenski v. Seigel

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Citation177 F.3d 245
Docket Number98-1809,Nos. 98-1717,s. 98-1717
PartiesAdam OSTRZENSKI, M.D., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Mark S. SEIGEL, M.D., Defendant-Appellee. Adam Ostrzenski, M.D., Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Mark S. Seigel, M.D., Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date24 May 1999

ARGUED: Chester Alexander Hewes, Jr., HEWES, GELBAND, LAMBERT & DANN, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Andrew Howard Baida, Assistant Attorney General, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, Thomas W. Keech, Assistant Attorney General, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Before WILKINS and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges, and LEE, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Wilkins wrote the opinion, in which Judge Williams and Judge Lee joined.

WILKINS, Circuit Judge:

Dr. Adam Ostrzenski brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 (West Supp.1998) against Dr. Mark S. Seigel, who conducted a peer review of Ostrzenski at the behest of the Maryland Board of Physician Quality Assurance (the Board). Ostrzenski alleged that Seigel denied him due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments as a result of procedural irregularities in the peer review process. In addition, Ostrzenski brought a claim for false light invasion of privacy under Maryland law. The district court dismissed Ostrzenski's action for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), reasoning that Seigel was entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity from prosecution on Ostrzenski's § 1983 claim and that Ostrzenski had alleged the publication of no facts that could be considered "highly offensive" to Ostrzenski as required for a Maryland false light claim. J.A. 40 (internal quotation marks omitted). Because we conclude that Seigel is entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity on both the § 1983 and the false light claims, we affirm.

I.

The Maryland Medical Practice Act governs the licensing and disciplining of physicians in Maryland. See Md. Code Ann. Health Occ. §§ 14-101 to 14-702 (1994 & Supp.1998). The Board, the state regulatory agency charged with carrying out the provisions of the Act, is authorized to investigate allegations of violations of the Act, including accusations that a physician has "[f]ail[ed] to meet appropriate standards as determined by appropriate peer review for the delivery of quality medical and surgical care performed in ... any ... location in this State." Id. § 14-404(a)(22). The Act instructs that after conducting a preliminary investigation "the Board shall refer any allegation involving standards of medical care ... to the [Maryland Medical and Chirurgical] Faculty for further investigation and physician peer review within the involved medical specialty." Id. § 14-401(c)(2)(i). The Faculty may in turn "refer the allegation for investigation and report to the appropriate ... [c]ounty medical society ... or ... [c]ommittee of the Faculty." Id. § 14-401(c)(2)(ii). The investigating society or committee is required to submit a "report to the Board on its investigation" that "contain[s] the information and recommendations necessary for appropriate action by the Board." Id. § 14-401(e)(1)(i), (e)(2). Upon "receipt of the report, the Board shall consider the recommendations made in the report and take the action ... that it finds appropriate under this title." Id. § 14-401(e)(3). The Board is authorized to impose a variety of sanctions, including license revocation. See id. § 14-404(a).

In 1991, Holy Cross Hospital in Maryland decided to restrict the privileges of Ostrzenski, a gynecological surgeon trained in laparoscopic techniques. The hospital notified the Board of its decision, sparking an investigation of Ostrzenski. The Board requested that the Faculty advise it on whether a formal charge against Ostrzenski should be pursued. And, the Faculty in turn referred the matter to the Montgomery County Medical Society, which assigned peer reviewers Drs. Mark S. Seigel and Ronald Orleans to review Ostrzenski's practice. In February 1993, Seigel and Orleans visited Ostrzenski's office and selected ten files for review. Based on their review, they submitted a report to the Board in March 1993. In June 1994, the Board issued charges against Ostrzenski.

In May 1997, Ostrzenski brought this action against Seigel. The first count alleged that Seigel had deprived Ostrzenski of due process in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments through various procedural irregularities in the peer review process and the report. The second count alleged a false light claim under Maryland law, charging that Seigel had knowingly or recklessly included false information in the report.

Prior to answering the complaint, Seigel filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and the district court dismissed the action with prejudice. See Carter v. Norfolk Community Hosp. Ass'n, 761 F.2d 970, 974 (4th Cir.1985) (explaining that a dismissal by the district court for failure to state a claim is with prejudice unless the court specifically orders dismissal without prejudice). The court held that Seigel's duties as a peer reviewer were quasi-judicial and thus that he was immune from § 1983 liability. In addition, the district court ruled that Ostrzenski's lone allegation of falsehood in the report was that Seigel had misrepresented that he had no conflicts of interest with Ostrzenski and that this representation was "not even mildly offensive, let alone 'highly offensive' as required by Maryland law." J.A. 40. Ostrzenski challenges the ruling of the district court with respect to both of these causes of action. We address them seriatim.

II.

"Suits for monetary damages are meant to compensate the victims of wrongful actions and to discourage conduct that may result in liability." Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 223, 108 S.Ct. 538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988). The prospect of liability for damages encourages public officials to perform their assignments appropriately and in a manner that does not injure others. See id. Because generally actions for damages serve this laudable goal, the Supreme Court has been very sparing in its grants of absolute immunity from damages for constitutional violations in § 1983 actions. See id. at 224, 108 S.Ct. 538. In some situations, however, the threat of liability for damages hinders, rather than advances, the prospects that public officials will perform their duties in the public interest. See id. at 223-24, 108 S.Ct. 538. The special functions of some governmental officials require that they be exempted completely from such liability. See Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 508, 98 S.Ct. 2894, 57 L.Ed.2d 895 (1978) (recognizing "that there are some officials whose special functions require a full exemption from liability"). Such officials include judges performing judicial acts within their jurisdiction, see Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 553-54, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967), prosecutors performing acts "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process," Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976), and "quasi-judicial" agency officials whose duties are comparable to those of judges or prosecutors when adequate procedural safeguards exist, see Butz, 438 U.S. at 511-17, 98 S.Ct. 2894. The question here is whether the district court correctly determined that Seigel's duties as a peer reviewer fell within this latter category.

Every court of appeals that has addressed the issue has concluded that members of a state medical disciplinary board are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity for performing judicial or prosecutorial functions. See O'Neal v. Mississippi Bd. of Nursing, 113 F.3d 62, 65-67 (5th Cir.1997); Wang v. New Hampshire Bd. of Registration in Med., 55 F.3d 698, 701 (1st Cir.1995); Watts v. Burkhart, 978 F.2d 269, 272-78 (6th Cir.1992) (en banc); Bettencourt v. Board of Registration in Med., 904 F.2d 772, 782-84 (1st Cir.1990); Horwitz v. State Bd. of Med. Exam'rs, 822 F.2d 1508, 1512-16 (10th Cir.1987). The rationale underlying these decisions is that medical disciplinary boards satisfy the criteria set forth in Butz as justifying absolute immunity because (1) the boards perform essentially judicial and prosecutorial functions; (2) there exists a strong need to ensure that individual board members perform their functions for the public good without harassment and intimidation; and (3) there exist adequate procedural safeguards under state law to protect against unconstitutional conduct by board members without reliance on private damages lawsuits. See, e.g., O'Neal, 113 F.3d at 66; Bettencourt, 904 F.2d at 783.

Although Seigel is not a Board member, and thus he is one step removed from the "judicial" functions of the Board, he nevertheless may be entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity if he is engaged in a protected prosecutorial function. See Butz, 438 U.S. at 515, 98 S.Ct. 2894 (holding "that agency officials performing certain functions analogous to those of a prosecutor should be able to claim absolute immunity with respect to such acts"); Wang, 55 F.3d at 701-02 (holding medical board and its attorneys who investigated the charges were entitled to absolute immunity); see also Kwoun v. Southeast Mo. Prof'l Standards Review Org., 811 F.2d 401, 406-09 (8th Cir.1987) (holding that state peer review groups, which were relied upon by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to make recommendations concerning whether physicians were entitled to participate in the Medicare program, were entitled to absolute immunity); cf. Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U.S. 118, 118 S.Ct. 502, 508, 139 L.Ed.2d 471 (1997) (explaining "that the absolute immunity that protects the prosecutor's role as an advocate is...

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