Rechsteiner v. Hazelden

Decision Date16 July 2008
Docket NumberNo. 2006AP1521.,2006AP1521.
Citation753 N.W.2d 496,2008 WI 97
PartiesHans RECHSTEINER, Plaintiff-Appellant-Petitioner, v. HAZELDEN, Spooner Health System, Board of Directors of Spooner Health System, William Stewart, III, Judy Cuskey, Maxine Long and Mike Schafer, Defendants-Respondents, ABC Insurance Company, DEF Insurance Company and GHI Insurance Company, Defendants.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

For the plaintiff-appellant-petitioner there were briefs by James A. Drill, Anne E. Schmiege, and Doar Drill, S.C., New Richmond, and oral argument was by James A. Drill.

For the defendants-respondents Spooner Health System, Board or Directors of Spooner Health System, William Stewart, III, Judy Cuskey, Maxine Long and Mike Shafer, there was a brief by Lindsay G. Arthur, Jr., Sally Ferguson, and Arthur, Chapman, Kettering, Smetak & Pikala, P.A., Minneapolis, Minn., and oral argument by Sally Ferguson.

For the defendant-respondent Hazelden, there was a brief by Louise Dovre Bjorkman, Stephen P. Laitinen, Mark A. Solheim, and Larson King, L.L.P., St. Paul, Minn., and oral argument by Louise Dovre Bjorkman.

¶ 1 DAVID T. PROSSER, J

This is a review of a published decision of the court of appeals,1 which affirmed a judgment and order of the Washburn County Circuit Court, Michael J. Gableman, Judge.2 The circuit court dismissed Dr. Hans Rechsteiner's (Dr. Rechsteiner) suit and granted summary judgment to defendants Spooner Health System (Spooner); the Board of Directors of Spooner Health System (Board); directors Judy Cuskey, Maxine Long, and William Stewart, III; Spooner administrator Mike Schafer;3 and Hazelden, an addictionology clinic.

¶ 2 Dr. Rechsteiner has been a general surgeon employed by Spooner on a contract basis. After undergoing diagnosis and treatment for alcohol dependence at Hazelden at the behest of Spooner, Dr. Rechsteiner brought an action alleging medical negligence against Hazelden. He also filed claims of defamation and negligent communication of false information against the Spooner defendants for statements made to Hazelden staff about Dr. Rechsteiner. The defendants moved for summary judgment and asserted statutory immunity under Wis. Stat. § 146.37,4 Wisconsin's "peer review statute." Before the hearing on summary judgment, Dr. Rechsteiner moved for a continuance to allow additional time for discovery.

¶ 3 The circuit court denied Dr. Rechsteiner's motion for a continuance, granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment, and dismissed Dr. Rechsteiner's complaint on the basis that all defendants enjoyed immunity from civil liability under Wis. Stat. § 146.37. Dr. Rechsteiner appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed, partly on different grounds. Rechsteiner v. Hazelden, 2007 WI App 148, ¶ 33, 303 Wis.2d 656, 736 N.W.2d 219. We granted Dr. Rechsteiner's petition for review.

¶ 4 This case presents multiple questions. Analysis of Questions (1), (2), and (3) regarding Hazelden appears in section II. C., below. Analysis of Questions (4) and (5) regarding the Spooner defendants appears in section II. D. Analysis of Question (6) appears in section II. E. The questions presented, as we see them, together with the answers provided, are stated as follows:

Question (1): Is Hazelden, a third-party addictionology center, too removed from the peer review process initiated by Spooner to be eligible for immunity under Wis. Stat. § 146.37?

Answer (1): No. Hazelden is eligible for immunity under Wis. Stat. § 146.37 because it played an integral role in Spooner's medical peer review of Dr. Rechsteiner.

Question (2): Does Hazelden's diagnosis of Dr. Rechsteiner during the medical peer review process qualify for immunity, under Wis. Stat. § 146.37, even if its diagnosis is deemed negligent?

Answer (2): Yes. Hazelden's medical diagnosis of Dr. Rechsteiner is immune under Wis. Stat. § 146.37, even if the diagnosis is deemed negligent, because Hazelden's diagnosis was made in good faith and was central to a requested evaluation of Dr. Rechsteiner in peer review.

Question (3): Does Hazelden's treatment of Dr. Rechsteiner, following its diagnosis of his medical condition, qualify for immunity under Wis. Stat. § 146.37?

Answer (3): The court is not required to decide whether treatment related to the peer review process qualifies for immunity. If Dr. Rechsteiner's complaint is viewed as focusing on Hazelden's treatment of Dr. Rechsteiner, as opposed to its diagnosis of Dr. Rechsteiner, his complaint cannot survive a motion for summary judgment on the facts of this case.

Question (4): Do the actions and statements of the Spooner defendants qualify for immunity under Wis. Stat. § 146.37?

Answer (4): Yes. The actions and words of the Spooner defendants are immune under Wis. Stat. § 146.37 because they were part of Dr. Rechsteiner's peer review and because the Spooner defendants were presumed to be acting in good faith.

Question (5): Did Dr. Rechsteiner provide evidence to the court that raised a genuine issue of material fact about the good faith of the Spooner defendants?

Answer (5): No.

Question (6): Did the circuit court erroneously exercise its discretion in denying Dr. Rechsteiner's motion for a continuance?

Answer (6): No.

¶ 5 Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

I. BACKGROUND

¶ 6 Since 1982 Dr. Rechsteiner has been employed as a general surgeon by Spooner on a contract basis. From 1982 until July 2003, Dr. Rechsteiner was the only full-time surgeon at Spooner and was "on call" 24 hours per day, seven days per week, unless he made prior arrangements with other surgeons in the region. An additional surgeon began working at Spooner in July 2003. Since then, Dr. Rechsteiner has alternated with the new surgeon so that he has been on call every other night.

¶ 7 Dr. Rechsteiner alleges that from the time he was hired by Spooner in 1982 until the present, "Spooner Health System has had no written or oral policy pertaining to drinking alcoholic beverages while on call." During his tenure with Spooner, Dr. Rechsteiner admittedly consumed alcoholic beverages while on call; however, he claims he "never drank to the point of intoxication." The defendants assert that a hospital administrator complained to Dr. Rechsteiner about his drinking in public while on call in 1999.

¶ 8 On March 8, 2003, Dr. Rechsteiner and a family friend, Nathan Christner (Christner), were riding snowmobiles on Dr. Rechsteiner's property. Christner was seriously injured in an accident, and rescue workers were called to the scene. After Dr. Rechsteiner admitted that he had been drinking while snowmobiling, a sheriff's deputy asked Dr. Rechsteiner to submit to a breathalyzer test. Dr. Rechsteiner's blood alcohol content registered .06 percent. Dr. Rechsteiner was the only on-call surgeon for Spooner on March 8. Following the incident, the Board received a sheriff's department incident report of the snowmobile accident, and the Board met to consider whether an evaluation of Dr. Rechsteiner's conduct was necessary.

¶ 9 On March 14, 2003, Spooner advised Dr. Rechsteiner that under Spooner's bylaws he either had to go on immediate leave or submit to an alcohol assessment and, if necessary, treatment. Spooner further informed Dr. Rechsteiner that his "privileges at the hospital would be suspended until [he] successfully underwent the assessment and any treatment recommended following such assessment."

¶ 10 From March 16 to March 21, 2003, Dr. Rechsteiner underwent an alcohol assessment at the Hazelden treatment center in Center City, Minnesota, which was arranged and paid for by Spooner. As part of the assessment, Hazelden agents and employees contacted Mike Schafer, hospital administrator and CEO of Spooner Health System, Inc., and members of the Board "to request information pertaining to [Dr. Rechsteiner's] career and his alcohol use." Dr. Rechsteiner contends that Schafer and Board members Cuskey Long, and Stewart communicated false information to Hazelden, which forms the basis for his claims of defamation and negligent communication of false information against the Spooner defendants.

¶ 11 After an assessment, Hazelden diagnosed Dr. Rechsteiner with "alcohol dependence." Hazelden recommended that Dr. Rechsteiner undergo 28 days of inpatient treatment, which Dr. Rechsteiner completed shortly after the assessment. After completing this treatment at Hazelden, Dr. Rechsteiner returned to work at Spooner. Thereafter, Dr. Rechsteiner participated in multiple aftercare programs, including a 12-week course at Luther Midelfort, biweekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and a two-year aftercare program monitored by the Wisconsin Medical Society.

¶ 12 While Dr. Rechsteiner was participating in outpatient aftercare services at Luther Midelfort, he was told by Scott Hansen (Hansen), an Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) Supervisor, that Hansen believed Dr. Rechsteiner had been misdiagnosed with "alcohol dependence." Hansen performed his own assessment and made a diagnosis of "alcohol abuse." After speaking with Hansen regarding this diagnosis, Dr. Rechsteiner was evaluated by Paul Sneen (Sneen) of Community Counseling Services. Sneen agreed with Hansen that Dr. Rechsteiner was not correctly diagnosed with alcohol dependence. Afterward, Dr. Rechsteiner wrote Hazelden a letter "requesting that they reconsider their diagnosis."

¶ 13 On August 1, 2003, Jim Atkins (Atkins), Manager of Admissions and Case Management at Hazelden, responded to Dr. Rechsteiner's letter. Atkins advised Dr. Rechsteiner that Hazelden was amending its diagnosis from that of "alcohol dependence" to "alcohol abuse." However, in his letter Atkins informed Dr. Rechsteiner:

It is important for you to understand that we routinely recommend 28 days of inpatient treatment for participants in the Residential Evaluation Program who meet the criteria for Alcohol Abuse, but not Dependence, and that we would have done so...

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