Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Services

Citation515 S.E.2d 675
Decision Date25 June 1999
Docket NumberNo. 62PA97-2.,62PA97-2.
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesA. Ron VIRMANI, M.D. v. PRESBYTERIAN HEALTH SERVICES CORP. In re Knight Publishing Company d/b/a The Charlotte Observer and John Hechinger.

Bush, Thurman & Wilson, P.A., by Tom Bush, Charlotte, for plaintiff-appellee.

Kilpatrick Stockton, L.L.P., by Noah H. Huffstetler, III, Raleigh, for defendant-appellant.

Waggoner, Hamrick, Hasty, Monteith & Kratt, P.L.L.C., by John H. Hasty and G. Bryan Adams, III, Charlotte, for intervenors-appellees Knight Publishing Co. and John Hechinger.

Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan, by Julian D. Bobbitt, Jr., Raleigh, on behalf of North Carolina Hospital Association and the North Carolina Medical Society, amici curiae.

Everett, Gaskins, Hancock & Stevens, L.L.P., by Hugh Stevens and C. Amanda Martin, Raleigh, on behalf of North Carolina Press Association, Inc., and The News and Observer Publishing Co., Inc.; and Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard, L.L.P., by Mark J. Prak, Raleigh, on behalf of North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, Inc., amici curiae.

MITCHELL, Chief Justice.

This appeal presents an issue of first impression for this Court. We are called upon to decide whether the public and the news media have a right of access to civil court proceedings and records pertaining to medical peer review evaluations and, if so, the extent of this right. Specifically, appellant presents questions for review regarding the Court of Appeals' decision reversing several orders entered in a civil lawsuit in Superior Court, Mecklenburg County, which orders closed courtroom proceedings and sealed various documents.

This suit was brought by Dr. Ron Virmani against Presbyterian Health Services Corporation (Presbyterian) following the suspension of Dr. Virmani's medical staff privileges at The Presbyterian Hospital and Presbyterian Hospital Matthews (jointly, the Hospital), hospitals owned and operated by Presbyterian in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm in part and reverse in part the decision of the Court of Appeals.

The portions of the record open to the public and the facts set forth in the briefs submitted to this Court on which the parties and the putative intervenor agree, indicate that the following events took place in connection with the instant case. After concerns were raised about Dr. Virmani's competence as a physician, Presbyterian conducted a medical peer review evaluation of all of his cases at the Hospital. The medical review committee, comprised of six of Dr. Virmani's colleagues on the medical staff, reviewed the charts of the patients Dr. Virmani had admitted to the Hospital and treated there. Based on the peer review committee's evaluation, Presbyterian concluded that Dr. Virmani's medical judgment posed a serious risk to the health and safety of its patients and, therefore, suspended Dr. Virmani's medical privileges at the Hospital.

After exhausting the administrative appeals available within the Hospital, Dr. Virmani filed this lawsuit against Presbyterian on 22 January 1996, challenging the revocation of his privileges. Dr. Virmani attached numerous documents as exhibits to his complaint. These included copies of: a memo from the chairman (Chairman) of the Hospital's Obstetrics/ Gynecology (OB/GYN) Department requesting a peer review evaluation of Dr. Virmani; a memo from the Chairman summarizing a meeting in which he notified Dr. Virmani of the peer review; a letter from the Chairman and the chairman of the OB/GYN peer review committee to members of the department, informing them of the peer review process; the peer review committee's detailed report and its summary of findings regarding its evaluation of Dr. Virmani; and a letter from Presbyterian's president suspending Dr. Virmani from the active staff. Dr. Virmani included in his complaint a motion for a temporary restraining order and for a preliminary injunction ordering Presbyterian to comply with the procedures set forth in the Hospital's bylaws and to reinstate Dr. Virmani until it so complied.

On 23 January 1996, Judge Marvin K. Gray conducted a hearing on plaintiff's motion for a temporary restraining order. Presbyterian moved to close the hearing and to seal the exhibits which were attached to the complaint and which contained confidential medical peer review records and materials. On 23 January 1996, Judge Gray signed a temporary restraining order directing the Hospital to readmit Dr. Virmani to the medical staff pending a hearing on his motion for a preliminary injunction. The temporary restraining order also directed that

based upon the provisions contained in North Carolina General Statute § 131E-95. Medical Review Committee, the hearing on plaintiff's application for a temporary restraining order shall be confidential; that the exhibits attached to plaintiff's complaint shall be sealed by the clerk of court until further order of this court; and that all other pleadings, affidavits and motions heretofore filed with the court, shall be maintained and available to the public absent a subsequent ruling or order by this court to the contrary.

The exhibits attached to the complaint were sealed and are included in the record on appeal in an envelope marked as "Exhibit 3."

On 7 February 1996, Presbyterian submitted directly to Judge James U. Downs a legal memorandum in opposition to Dr. Virmani's motion for preliminary injunction along with supporting affidavits from various hospital personnel, all of which included medical peer review information. In its cover letter, Presbyterian noted that it had not filed these documents with the court because they were protected under the peer review statute. Presbyterian further stated in the letter, "We are providing, but not filing these documents in order that the Court might be prepared for the hearing while at the same time preserving the privilege and protection provided by statute." Thereafter, Judge Downs issued an order on 9 February 1996 sealing confidential peer review information and records in the "Court File." This order sealed Presbyterian's motion to seal confidential peer review records and materials, the affidavits of hospital personnel and exhibits attached thereto, exhibits to plaintiff's complaint, and the memorandum in opposition to Dr. Virmani's motion for preliminary injunction. In the order, Judge Downs found that: (1) Presbyterian had filed with him "sensitive and confidential information and Peer Review Committee records and materials," (2) "under N.C.G.S. § 131E-95 records and materials produced and considered by a Medical Review Committee shall be confidential and not considered public records," and (3) "Medical Review Committee records and materials could cause harm to Plaintiff and Defendant and the peer review process if left unsealed in the public record during the course of the pending litigation."

A hearing was later held on plaintiff Dr. Virmani's motion for a preliminary injunction. On 7 March 1996, Judge Downs entered an order denying injunctive relief and dissolving that part of the earlier temporary restraining order which had ordered Dr. Virmani reinstated.

On 3 April 1996, The Charlotte Observer published a story by reporter John Hechinger about Dr. Virmani, based on certain documents Mr. Hechinger had obtained from the court file. On 7 May 1996, Mr. Hechinger attended a calendared hearing in the Superior Court, Mecklenburg County, on Presbyterian's motion to dismiss and the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. Early in the hearing, Presbyterian's attorneys moved to close the courtroom pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 131E-95 because confidential medical peer review information would be discussed during the hearing. Judge Marcus L. Johnson ordered that the hearing be closed to the public and that confidential peer review records which Presbyterian anticipated presenting to the court be sealed. In making his oral order, Judge Johnson noted that it appeared that during a substantial part of the hearing the parties would be discussing and presenting materials pertaining to peer review information. Mr. Hechinger objected to the closing of the hearing and asked for a continuance to allow him to obtain counsel to argue against the closure. Judge Johnson noted Mr. Hechinger's objection and request for a continuance but proceeded to close the hearing and denied the continuance. Mr. Hechinger complied with the closure by leaving the courtroom.

The following morning, an attorney for Knight Publishing Company d/b/a The Charlotte Observer and Mr. Hechinger (jointly, the Observer) appeared before Judge Johnson and presented written motions to intervene and to open the proceedings to the public and the news media. Judge Johnson denied the motions without hearing arguments. On 10 May 1996, Judge Johnson entered a written order sealing confidential peer review information and records and closing courtroom proceedings involving the discussion and disclosure of peer review information during a hearing on the parties' summary judgment motions. In this order, Judge Johnson made findings of fact virtually identical to those set forth in Judge Downs' earlier closure order. The parties and the putative intervenor all agree that Judge Johnson's order referred to the Observer's motions and that it effectively, although not expressly, denied them. The order provided that (1) the documents presented or used by the parties in support of their motions which contained confidential peer review information would be sealed by the clerk of court, and (2) the summary judgment motions hearings and courtroom proceedings involving the medical review committee records, materials and findings would be closed to the public and the media. Subsequent orders were entered sealing videotapes and transcripts of those portions of the previously closed court proceedings in which medical peer review...

To continue reading

Request your trial
63 cases
  • State v. Kelliher
    • United States
    • North Carolina Supreme Court
    • June 17, 2022
    ...questions concerning the proper construction and application of the North Carolina Constitution." Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Servs. Corp. , 350 N.C. 449, 474, 515 S.E.2d 675 (1999).¶ 50 The constitutional text, our precedents illustrating this Court's role in interpreting the North Caro......
  • Director of Health Affairs v. Foic
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • August 25, 2009] committee in carrying out its peer review function" [internal quotation marks omitted]); Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Services Corp., 350 N.C. 449, 478, 515 S.E.2d 675 (1999) ("[t]he public's interest in access to ... court proceedings, records and documents is outweighed by the c......
  • People v. In the Interest of N.R., Case No. 05SA273 (Colo. 7/31/2006)
    • United States
    • Colorado Supreme Court
    • July 31, 2006
    ...court has the inherent authority to protect the integrity of the court in actions before it."); Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Services Corp., 350 N.C. 449, 463, 515 S.E.2d 675, 685 (N.C. 1999) ("[T]rial courts always retain the necessary inherent power granted them by [the state constituti......
  • Johnston v. State
    • United States
    • North Carolina Court of Appeals
    • December 18, 2012
    ...rights to the citizen above and beyond those guaranteed by the parallel federal provision.” Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Services Corp., 350 N.C. 449, 475, 515 S.E.2d 675, 692 (1999) (quoting State v. Jackson, 348 N.C. 644, 648, 503 S.E.2d 101, 103 (1998)). The North Carolina Constitution......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Experts
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Personal Injury Forms: Discovery & Settlement
    • May 3, 2011
    ...of information that is related to the self-evaluation privilege. See, e.g., Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Servs. Corp., 350 N.C. 449, 515 S.E.2d 675, 685 (1999). 8. Methods to overcome peer review objection A. The institutions or entities involved are not “peer review” institutions as set ......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT