Business Law

Stafford v. Attending Staff Association of LAC + USC Medical Center (October 30, 2019, B288008)__Cal.App.5th__ [2019 WL 5587044]

Stafford v. Attending Staff Association of LAC + USC Medical Center (October 30, 2019, B288008)__Cal.App.5th__ [2019 WL 5587044]

Filing a civil action does not automatically abandon pending peer review proceedings.

Dr. Novarro Stafford is a retired anesthesiologist whose clinical privileges were terminated by the medical staff at USC Medical Center prior to his retirement. While Dr. Stafford worked at the Medical Center, a female patient had complained that Dr. Stafford had acted inappropriately during an examination. The medical staff summarily suspended Dr. Stafford’s privileges and referred him for a neurocognitive evaluation. The medical staff then terminated Dr. Stafford’s privileges after he failed to timely submit to the evaluation. Dr. Stafford appealed and requested an administrative hearing. A hearing officer (James Lahana) was appointed.

A series of misunderstandings followed. Dr. Stafford advised the medical staff that he intended to file a civil action because a hearing had not been scheduled promptly. Then Dr. Stafford’s attorney emailed the medical staff’s counsel about dismissing the proceedings because of Dr. Stafford’s retirement. Lahana saw the correspondence and sent a letter to Dr. Stafford’s attorney asking if his client was dismissing the administrative appeal. But Dr. Stafford’s attorney never saw the letter. Dr. Stafford filed a civil action, but he dismissed it before the superior court ruled on a pending demurrer and anti-SLAPP motion. Dr. Stafford later sought to proceed with his administrative appeal, but Lahana believed it had been abandoned. The parties disputed whether the administrative appeal was closed, but it did not proceed further.

Eventually, Dr. Stafford petitioned for a writ of administrative mandate seeking an order requiring the medical staff to complete the administrative process. The medical staff responded that Dr. Stafford had withdrawn or abandoned his right to a hearing. The superior court granted the petition, finding that Dr. Stafford had not failed to appear, had not abandoned his right to relief, and that his counsel had not requested dismissal. The medical staff appealed.

The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that Dr. Stafford neither abandoned his administrative remedy nor failed to exhaust remedies by filing a civil action. While the exhaustion of administrative remedies doctrine precludes a party from seeking a judicial remedy before the conclusion of an administrative proceeding, the doctrine does not speak to a party’s intention to abandon the administrative process merely by filing a premature civil action. In addition, substantial evidence supported the trial court’s finding that Dr. Stafford did not abandon his administrative appeal via his counsel’s correspondence. Finally, the court held that the superior court had properly allocated the burden of proof to the medical staff because abandonment is an affirmative defense. 

The bulletin describing the Court of Appeal’s decision was originally prepared for the California Society for Healthcare Attorneys (CSHA) by H. Thomas Watson and Peder K. Batalden, Horvitz & Levy LLP, and is republished with permission. For more information regarding this bulletin, please contact H. Thomas Watson, Horvitz & Levy LLP, at 818-995-0800 or htwatson@horvitzlevy.com.

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