Rechsteiner v. Hazelden

Decision Date22 May 2007
Docket NumberNo. 2006AP1521.,2006AP1521.
Citation736 N.W.2d 219,2007 WI App 148
PartiesHans RECHSTEINER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. HAZELDEN, Spooner Health System, Board of Directors of Spooner Health System, William Stewart, III, Judy Cuskey, Maxine Long and Mike Shafer, Defendants-Respondents, ABC Insurance Company, DEF Insurance Company and GHI Insurance Company, Defendants.
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals

On behalf of the plaintiff-appellant, the cause was submitted on the briefs of James A. Drill and Anne E. Schmiege of Doar Drill, S.C. of New Richmond.

On behalf of the defendant-respondent, Hazelden, the cause was submitted on the brief of Louise Dovre Bjorkman, Mark A. Solheim and Stephen P. Laitinen of Larson King, LLP of St. Paul, MN.

On behalf of defendants-respondents, Spooner Health System, Board of Directors of Spooner Health System, William Stewart III, Judy Cuskey, Maxine Long and Mike Shafer, the cause was submitted on the brief of Lindsay G. Arthur, Jr. of Arthur, Chapman, Kettering, Smetak & Pikala, P.A. of Minneapolis, MN.

Before CANE, C.J., HOOVER, P.J., and PETERSON, J.

¶ 1 HOOVER, P.J

Hans Rechsteiner appeals a summary judgment dismissing his claims for negligence, malpractice, and defamation against Spooner Health System; its Board of Directors; directors Judy Cuskey, Maxine Long, and William Stewart, III; administrator Mike Shafer; and rehabilitation clinic Hazelden. Rechsteiner asserts the circuit court erred by concluding the defendants enjoyed statutory immunity. Rechsteiner also appeals an order denying his motion for a continuance of the summary judgment hearing. We conclude the court properly applied immunity and appropriately exercised its discretion to deny the continuance. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment and order.

Background

¶ 2 Rechsteiner began working for Spooner in 1982. From then until July 2003, he was Spooner's only surgeon and was on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, unless he made arrangements with another surgeon in the region. In July 2003, Spooner hired an additional surgeon.

¶ 3 On March 8, 2003, while on call, Rechsteiner went snowmobiling with Nathan Christner. Christner was involved in an accident and was seriously injured. Sheriff's deputies were dispatched to investigate and, upon interviewing Rechsteiner, noticed an odor of alcohol. A preliminary breath test, administered approximately an hour after the accident, indicated Rechsteiner's blood-alcohol concentration was .06%.

¶ 4 The Sheriff's Department sent a copy of the accident report to Spooner. Rechsteiner had been previously admonished about drinking, particularly in public, while on call, and Spooner and the Board grew more concerned about Rechsteiner's ability to provide care to patients. Thus, Spooner instituted a formal review process.

¶ 5 As part of this review, Rechsteiner was referred to Hazelden for a five-day assessment at Spooner's expense. At Hazelden's request, to aid its assessment, Rechsteiner authorized staff to contact his colleagues and acquaintances. Hazelden initiated contact via telephone. During some of these calls, Cuskey, Long, and Stewart made statements that Rechsteiner considers defamatory. All statements were recorded in his medical chart but were never made public beyond Rechsteiner's complaint.

¶ 6 Hazelden initially concluded Rechsteiner was alcohol dependent, resulting in a twenty-eight-day inpatient course of treatment. Following the inpatient treatment, Rechsteiner was enrolled in a twelve-week follow-up program, where two counselors advised him they did not think he was alcohol dependent. Rechsteiner contacted Hazelden and asked that it reconsider his diagnosis. Hazelden amended the diagnosis to alcohol abuse.

¶ 7 Rechsteiner brought suit, contending that had the abuse diagnosis been made initially, he would not have had to complete the inpatient treatment and would not have lost the month's worth of income. He also complained about the allegedly defamatory statements made during Hazelden's phone calls, contending they lowered his reputation in the community and decreased his business.

¶ 8 The defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting statutory immunity for participation in a peer review of a physician. Rechsteiner moved for a continuance for additional discovery time, contending he had been unable to schedule depositions with Hazelden personnel and a motion to compel was pending. The court denied the motion for continuance and granted the defendants' motion, holding they had immunity. Rechsteiner appeals.

Discussion

¶ 9 We review summary judgments de novo, using the same methodology as the circuit court. Green Spring Farms v. Kersten, 136 Wis.2d 304, 315-17, 401 N.W.2d 816 (1987). Summary judgment is appropriate if there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. WIS. STAT. § 802.08(2).1 Statutory interpretation and application of a statute to a set of facts are questions of law. World Wide Prosthetic Supply, Inc. v. Mikulsky, 2002 WI 26, ¶ 8, 251 Wis.2d 45, 640 N.W.2d 764.

I. Immunity

¶ 10 WISCONSIN STAT. § 146.37(1g) provides, in relevant part:

[N]o person acting in good faith who participates in the review or evaluation of the services of health care providers . . . is liable for any civil damages as a result of any act or omission by such person in the course of such review or evaluation. Acts and omissions . . . include, but are not limited to, acts or omissions by peer review committees or hospital governing bodies in censuring, reprimanding, limiting or revoking hospital staff privileges . . . or taking any other disciplinary action against a health care provider. . . .

Rechsteiner does not contend there was no peer review process. Rather, he asserts that Hazelden was not a part of the review process because the clinic did not review or evaluate his services as a surgeon but merely evaluated whether he had chemical dependency issues.2 The trial court appears to have assumed Hazelden was part of the review process when it applied § 146.37(1g). Thus, we first address whether Hazelden was indeed part of a "peer review process."

¶ 11 WISCONSIN STAT. § 146.37 exists "to encourage hospitals to perform quality-control reviews aimed at improving, prospectively, their services." Hofflander v. St. Catherine's Hosp., 2003 WI 77, ¶ 119, 262 Wis.2d 539, 664 N.W.2d 545. Thus, Rechsteiner does not seriously challenge the appropriateness of Spooner initiating the review process. Although he contends the hospital knew of his drinking prior to the snowmobile accident, there is no compelling argument against a hospital reviewing the services of a provider who, it seems, may have been providing those services after consuming intoxicants.

¶ 12 At first blush, there is a fair argument that treatment at Hazelden was not part of the review process but, rather, the result. However, a closer review of the underlying facts leads us to conclude Hazelden is properly considered part of the overall review process.

¶ 13 The Board notified Rechsteiner that it was following the "Corrective Action Procedures and Fair Hearing Plan Addendum" of Spooner's bylaws. Based on that procedure, the Board found Rechsteiner's "actions warrant corrective action." Under the bylaws, upon such a finding, the physician may either take a voluntary leave of absence or is suspended. Under either circumstance, the physician may not return to practice until he or she undergoes an assessment process "through a recognized addictionology center," complies with the center's follow-up recommendations, and is "cleared to resume practice to the satisfaction of the Medical Staff and Board." The corrective action process also requires the physician to authorize Spooner's release of information to the treatment center, and the center's release of information back to Spooner.

¶ 14 Because the bylaws require cooperation with the treatment center's after-care recommendations, it is logical to infer that compliance must be successful in the center's view before the physician will have been "cleared to resume practice" by Spooner. Unsuccessful completion could result in continued suspension or dismissal.

¶ 15 Thus, it is evident that treatment is not the end result of the review process but an integral, intermediate step, and a significant factor in whether a hospital will ultimately retain or discharge a doctor. As such, when a doctor is referred to an addictionology center under Spooner's bylaws, that center is brought into the review process and will impact the outcome of the review.

¶ 16 In contending that Hazelden is not part of the review process, Rechsteiner relies merely on Hazelden's purpose — identification and treatment of addiction — without focusing on its role in the overall scheme. However, the evidence sufficiently indicates Hazelden is part of the whole process; it is not the review's outcome. Accordingly, WIS. STAT. § 146.37's immunity provision is extended to Hazelden for its role in Spooner's peer review of Rechsteiner's behavior.

¶ 17 Rechsteiner also claimed Cuskey, Long, and Stewart were not entitled to immunity for statements made to Hazelden, based on the premise that Hazelden was not part of the peer review. But the directors enjoy immunity for their comments to Hazelden because the center was a participant in the review process.

¶ 18 Rechsteiner asserts that even if the directors are entitled to immunity generally, the privilege does not apply here because the allegedly defamatory statements were not made in good faith. This, he contends, is a question that should be left to the jury and not disposed of on summary judgment.

¶ 19 Under WIS. STAT. § 146.37(1m), "[t]he good faith of any person specified in subs. (1g) ... shall be presumed in any civil action. Any person who asserts that such a person has not acted in good faith has the burden of proving that...

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3 cases
  • Rechsteiner v. Hazelden
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • July 16, 2008
    ...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 ¶ 4 This case presents multiple questions. Analysis ......
  • Bully v. Allstate Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co.
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Court of Appeals
    • April 12, 2016
    ...496 N.W.2d 206. To survive summary judgment, the opposing party must do more than say it will present evidence later. See Rechsteiner v. Hazelden, 2007 WI App 148, ¶ 21, 303 Wis.2d 656, 736 N.W.2d 219, aff'd 2008 WI 97, 313 Wis.2d 542, 753 N.W.2d 496. If the party opposing summary judgment ......
  • Transwood, Inc. v. WRR Envtl. Servs. Co., Appeal No. 2011AP503
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Court of Appeals
    • January 31, 2012
    ...865, 541 N.W.2d 803 (Ct. App. 1995). We will uphold the decision if it is supported by a reasonable basis in the record. Rechsteiner v. Hazelden, 2007 WI App 148, ¶30, 303 Wis. 2d 656, 736 N.W.2d 219. ¶12 We conclude the record here provides a reasonable basis for the court's decision not t......

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