Smith v. Williams

Decision Date14 September 2022
Docket Number20-CV-2224-EFM-GEB
PartiesKOLETTE SMITH, Plaintiff, v. BRIAN WILLIAMS and LABETTE COUNTY MEDICAL CENTER d/b/a LABETTE HEALTH, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Kansas

KOLETTE SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.

BRIAN WILLIAMS and LABETTE COUNTY MEDICAL CENTER d/b/a LABETTE HEALTH, Defendants.

No. 20-CV-2224-EFM-GEB

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 14, 2022


MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

ERIC F. MELGREN, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Plaintiff Kolette Smith brings suit against Defendants Brian Williams and Labette County Medical Center d/b/a Labette Health. She has filed a Second Amended Complaint asserting five claims. She asserts a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for denial of a property interest without due process of law. In addition, she asserts four state law claims under Kansas law: tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, fraud, false light invasion of privacy, and defamation. Defendants have filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 65) asserting that Plaintiff's claims fail for a variety of reasons. For the reasons stated in more detail below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' motion.

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I. Factual and Procedural Background[1]

Plaintiff is a licensed physician in Kansas. Plaintiff formerly worked for Defendant Labette Health, a public hospital in Labette County, Kansas, as a hospitalist. Plaintiff and Labette Health engaged in negotiations aimed at Plaintiff continuing that role for Labette Health but were unable to reach an agreement. After the end of Plaintiff's relationship with Labette Health, Plaintiff sought employment elsewhere.

Defendant Williams is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Labette Health. Williams became aware that Plaintiff was seeking employment with other medical care entities. He began writing to or calling those entities telling them that Plaintiff had a “non-compete agreement” that she was breaking by seeking employment with them. At no point did Plaintiff have a “non-compete agreement” with Labette Health. Defendants also began telling medical facilities in Kansas that Plaintiff had voluntarily resigned her hospital privileges and had failed to meet scheduled call obligations.

Plaintiff originally filed her Complaint on May 1, 2020, against Defendant Williams asserting two claims under § 1983-one for denial of a property interest without due process of law and one for denial of a liberty interest in reputational integrity without due process of law. On November 2, 2020, she filed an Amended Complaint adding Labette Health as a defendant. She also asserted five more claims: three claims under Kansas law (tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, fraud, and false light invasion of privacy) and two claims under

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Missouri law (tortious interference with prospective economic advantage and defamation).[2]Plaintiff alleged that she filed her Kansas Tort Claims Act (“KTCA”) notice on April 27, 2020, and it was deemed denied 120 days later.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss all claims. While the motion was pending, Plaintiff filed a motion to dismiss requesting the dismissal of her three claims under Kansas law. On October 12, 2021, this Court issued its order on the two motions. Because Plaintiff voluntarily filed a motion to dismiss her Kansas claims, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion to dismiss and found it unnecessary to address the Kansas tort claims or the procedural requirements of the KTCA.

With regard to Defendants' motion, the Court found that Plaintiff failed to state claims for denial of a liberty interest under § 1983 or for tortious interference with prospective economic advantage under Missouri law. As to the defamation claim under Missouri law, the Court found Plaintiff stated a claim. The Court also found that Plaintiff stated a claim for the denial of a property interest under § 1983. In a footnote, the Court stated that Plaintiff alleged in her response that she had an existing relationship with one employer, DocsWhoCare, but those allegations were not in her Amended Complaint. The Court allowed Plaintiff to amend her Amended Complaint and directed Plaintiff to add these allegations within ten days of the October 12 Order.

On October 26, 2021, Defendants filed a motion for reconsideration of the Court's order. They asserted that the Court erred when it did not address whether Plaintiff complied with the procedural requirements of the KTCA as to Plaintiff's defamation claim brought under Missouri

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law. Defendants argued that even though Plaintiff's claim was governed by Missouri law, Plaintiff must still comply with the procedural requirements of the KTCA before bringing this tort claim against them.

On February 8, 2022, the Court granted Defendants' motion for reconsideration. In this Order, the Court first noted that Defendants did not address Missouri law or principles of comity in their original briefing. Nevertheless, the Court addressed whether Plaintiff was required to procedurally comply with the KTCA before asserting the claim because if Plaintiff failed to do so, the Court would lack subject matter jurisdiction over the claim. Ultimately, the Court found that based on Missouri principles of comity, Missouri would recognize the KTCA's requirement that written notice of the tort claim must be provided prior to commencing suit on that claim. In addition, the Court determined that Plaintiff failed to provide proper notice of her tort claim under the KTCA in 2020 because she did not serve the notice on the clerk or governing body of the municipality. Because Plaintiff failed to provide adequate notice of her tort claim, the Court concluded that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the claim and thus it must be dismissed.

On April 20, 2022, Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to file a Second Amended Complaint. Two days later, Judge Birzer held a status conference with the parties, and she granted Plaintiff's motion, noting that the motion was unopposed. On April 25, 2022, Plaintiff filed her Second Amended Complaint. In it, she asserts five claims: (1) a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for denial of a property interest without due process of law, (2) tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, (3) fraud, (4) false light invasion of privacy, and (5) defamation. Plaintiff's tort claims are brought under Kansas law. She alleges that she filed her KTCA notice on March 14, 2022, and her claims were denied.

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On May 9, 2022, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss and Strike. Defendants seek dismissal of all claims. They claim that Plaintiff's claims are barred by the statute of limitations, fail to state a claim, and that some communications are protected by qualified privilege. They also seek to strike Plaintiff's claims, pursuant to K.S.A. § 60-5320, because they contend that her claims implicate their exercise of their right of free speech.

II. Legal Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a defendant may move for dismissal of any claim for which the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.[3] The court must decide “whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ”[4] A claim is facially plausible if the plaintiff pleads facts sufficient for the court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct.[5] The plausibility standard reflects the requirement in Rule 8 that pleadings provide defendants with fair notice of the nature of claims as well the grounds on which each claim rests.[6] Under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint, but need not afford such a presumption to legal conclusions.[7] Viewing the complaint in this manner, the court must decide whether the plaintiff's allegations give rise to more than speculative possibilities.[8] If the

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allegations in the complaint are “so general that they encompass a wide swath of conduct, much of it innocent, then the plaintiffs ‘have not nudged their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.' ”[9] Generally, the Court is constrained by the allegations in the complaint when considering a motion to dismiss. However, “a document central to the plaintiff's claim and referred to in the complaint may be considered in resolving a motion to dismiss, at least where the document's authenticity is not in dispute.”[10]

III. Analysis

A. Count 1 - Denial of a Property Interest Without Due Process Under § 1983

Defendants contend that Plaintiff does not provide sufficient details to support this claim. Plaintiff argues that she does.[11] The claim asserted in the Second Amended Complaint is substantially the same as the one previously asserted in the Amended Complaint. And the Court already found that Plaintiff adequately stated a claim for denial of a property interest without due process under § 1983.

The Court will only briefly address several of the parties' contentions because its previous ruling has not changed. Defendants contend that the Court qualified its previous finding that Plaintiff stated a claim. They claim that the Court only allowed the claim to go forward as to an existing employment relationship with one employer (DocsWhoCare), and that allegation was not

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in the Amended Complaint before the Court. They also argue that Plaintiff failed to follow the Court's order to amend her complaint within ten days to include that allegation. Nor is it included in the Second Amended Complaint that is currently before the Court. Thus, they argue that Plaintiff fails to state a claim.

Defendants misstate the Court's previous order. Although the Court did note that it would allow Plaintiff to file an amended complaint to include an allegation regarding an existing employment relationship, it did not foreclose Plaintiff's claim based on her other allegations. Specifically, the Court found that Plaintiff stated a claim because she included allegations that Defendants' actions resulted in the effective revocation of her medical license....

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