State ex rel. Grant Cnty. Comm'n v. Nelson

Decision Date22 March 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20-0600,20-0600
Citation856 S.E.2d 608
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
Parties STATE of West Virginia EX REL. GRANT COUNTY COMMISSION, Petitioner v. Honorable Lynn A. NELSON, Judge of the Circuit Court of Grant County, West Virginia; Kimberly Linville; Robert "Bob" Milvet; and the Board of Trustees of Grant Memorial Hospital Trust Foundation, Inc., Respondents
Concurring Opinion of Justice Wooton March 23, 2021

Concurring and Dissenting Opinion of Justice Walker March 23, 2021

Peter G. Zurbuch, Jeffrey S. Zurbuch Busch, Zurbuch & Thompson, PLLC, Elkins, West Virginia, Attorneys for Petitioner.

G. Isaac Sponaugle, III, SPONAUGLE & SPONAUGLE ATTORNEYS AT LAW, Franklin, West Virginia, Jane E. Peak, Allan N. Karlin & Associates, PLLC, Morgantown, West Virginia, Attorneys for Respondent, Kimberly Linville, Wendy G. Adkins, Jackson Kelly PLLC, Morgantown, West Virginia, Justin M. Harrison, Jackson Kelly PLLC, Charleston, West Virginia, Attorneys for Respondents, Grant Memorial Hospital and Robert "Bob" Milvet.

Jenkins, Chief Justice:

The Petitioner, Grant County Commission ("the Commission"), seeks review of an order entered by the Circuit Court of Grant County on July 29, 2020, denying the Commission's motion to dismiss causes of action asserted against the Commission.1 The instant litigation began when the Respondent, Kimberly Linville ("Ms. Linville"), filed a complaint in which she sought to recover damages resulting from the termination of her employment as the Chief Nursing Officer at Grant Memorial Hospital ("the Hospital"). In response, the Commission filed a motion to dismiss the complaint wherein it argued that it was not a proper party as it was neither Ms. Linville's employer, nor was it a health care entity. The Commission also asserted that it should have been afforded immunity pursuant to the Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act, West Virginia Code sections 29-12A-1 to - 18. The motion to dismiss was denied.

In this proceeding, the Commission presents two separate questions for this Court to decide: one is presented as a petition for writ of prohibition and the other is presented as an appeal pursuant to the collateral order doctrine. First, the Commission requests that this Court prohibit the circuit court from enforcing its order denying the Commission's motion to dismiss because "the circuit court exceeded its legitimate powers and erred as a matter of law ... by failing to find that the Commission was not the employer of Ms. Linville under the Whistle-Blower Law and the Human Rights Act, or [that the Commission was not] a health care entity under the Patient Safety Act." The Commission also appeals from the circuit court's order pursuant to the collateral order doctrine and assigns as error the circuit court's "fail[ure] to find that the Commission is immune, pursuant to the Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act, [from Ms. Linville's] claims [that the Commission committed] ... intentional acts."

Having considered the briefs submitted to the Court, the appendix record, the parties’ oral arguments, and the applicable legal authority, we find that the Commission is not the employer of Ms. Linville and therefore is an improper defendant in this case. In denying the motion to dismiss, the circuit court committed clear legal error. Therefore, we grant the requested writ of prohibition. We further find that the circuit court erred by not affording the Commission immunity from Ms. Linville's intentional tort claim, and so we reverse the circuit court's order.

I.FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The Hospital is a not-for-profit hospital located in Petersburg, Grant County, West Virginia. Pursuant to West Virginia Code sections 7-3-14 (eff. 1981) and 7-3-15 (eff. 1986), the Hospital is owned by the Commission and operated by a Board of Trustees.2

Ms. Linville was hired by the Hospital in 1997, and then, in 2011, she became the Chief Nursing Officer. As the Chief Nursing Officer, she had direct oversight of six nursing units, as well as the lab, radiology, and therapy departments. Ms. Linville reported to the Chief Executive Officer ("CEO") of the Hospital. On August 29, 2018, the Respondent Robert "Bob" Milvet ("CEO Milvet") was hired as the Hospital's new CEO.

During the time that Ms. Linville worked with CEO Milvet she frequently expressed to her superiors her concerns regarding his behavior within the hospital. Specifically, Ms. Linville alleges that CEO Milvet's actions were harassing and inappropriate and created a hostile working environment. Further, she contends that CEO Milvet engaged in an improper relationship with an employee, and that this relationship was having an adverse effect on employees of the Hospital, as well as on patient safety. Ms. Linville further made complaints to CEO Milvet and the Chief Financial Officer about "how finances were being handled at [the Hospital] after cash flow issues caused bills not to be paid and a vendor to hold up delivery of needed medical supplies." She also claims that she expressed concerns about CEO Milvet's alleged treatment of other employees and was critical of his actions outside of the workplace. Ms. Linville contends that CEO Milvet terminated her employment at the Hospital in retaliation for her complaints.

Ms. Linville filed a complaint on April 27, 2020, in which she sought to recover damages resulting from the termination of her employment. In the complaint, she named three defendants: CEO Milvet; the Board of Trustees of Grant Memorial Hospital Trust Foundation, Inc., otherwise known as Grant Memorial Hospital ("the Hospital"); and the Commission. Ms. Linville asserted four causes of action against these defendants: (1) discrimination and/or retaliation brought pursuant to the Whistle-Blower Law, West Virginia Code sections 6C-1-1 to - 8 ; (2) retaliation brought pursuant to the Human Rights Act, West Virginia Code sections 5-11-1 to - 20 ; (3) discrimination and/or retaliation brought pursuant to the Patient Safety Act, West Virginia Code sections 16-39-1 to - 7 ; and (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress.

On May 18, 2020, the Commission filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. Pertaining to the first two counts of the complaint, the Commission argued that it could not be liable to Ms. Linville under the Whistle-Blower Law or Human Rights Act because it was not the employer of Ms. Linville, as that term is defined in both statutes. Similarly, the Commission also sought dismissal of the Patient Safety Act count on the basis that it was not a health care entity as defined by that Act. Lastly, the Commission argued that it was immune from Ms. Linville's intentional tort claims under the Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act, West Virginia Code sections 29-12A-1 to - 18.

On July 9, 2020, a hearing on the motion to dismiss was held before the circuit court. Ms. Linville did not file a response in opposition. Upon consideration of the arguments of counsel, the circuit court denied the motion in an order dated July 29, 2020. This petition for writ of prohibition and appeal followed.

II.STANDARD OF REVIEW

This case presents a combined petition for writ of prohibition under this Court's original jurisdiction and appeal pursuant to the collateral order doctrine seeking review of the circuit court's order denying the Commission's motion to dismiss Ms. Linville's complaint. These two distinct proceedings require different standards of review. Accordingly, we will discuss the standard of review in conjunction with our discussion of each proceeding.

III.DISCUSSION

We first will address the petition for writ of prohibition and then we will address the appeal. All of the issues raised by the Commission, however, pertain to the circuit court's interpretation and application of statutory law. Therefore, our decision of this case is guided by the rules of statutory construction. When examining a statute to determine its meaning, this Court held that "[t]he primary object in construing a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the Legislature." Syl. pt. 1, Smith v. State Workmen's Comp. Comm'r , 159 W. Va. 108, 219 S.E.2d 361 (1975). Further, "[a] statutory provision which is clear and unambiguous and plainly expresses the legislative intent will not be interpreted by the courts but will be given full force and effect." Syl. pt. 2, State v. Epperly , 135 W. Va. 877, 65 S.E.2d 488 (1951). Accordingly, with these standards in mind, we now address the Commission's first request for relief: a petition for writ of prohibition.

A. Writ of Prohibition

The Commission seeks an extraordinary writ because it contends the Circuit Court of Grant County committed clear legal error in denying its motion to dismiss. In Syllabus point 2 of State ex rel. Peacher v. Sencindiver , 160 W. Va. 314, 233 S.E.2d 425 (1977), we held that "[a] writ of prohibition will not issue to prevent a simple abuse of discretion by a trial court. It will only issue where the trial court has no jurisdiction or having such jurisdiction exceeds its legitimate powers. W. Va. Code, 53-1-1." When a trial court is not acting in excess of its jurisdiction, this Court will, in the exercise of its discretion, use prohibition

to correct only substantial, clear-cut, legal errors plainly in contravention of a clear statutory, constitutional, or common law mandate which may be resolved independently of any disputed facts and only in cases where there is a high probability that the trial will be completely reversed if the error is not corrected in advance.

Syl. pt. 1, in part, Hinkle v. Black , 164 W. Va. 112, 262 S.E.2d 744 (1979), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in State ex rel. Thornhill Grp., Inc. v. King , 233 W. Va. 564, 759 S.E.2d 795 (2014).

When considering a petition for writ of prohibition, this Court is guided by the following:

In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for
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