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Doctors' Plea for Temporary Order Denied

They contend in suit that Community Memorial in Ventura is illegally eroding their rights. Case's key issues have yet to be decided.

May 06, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge refused Monday to block what some physicians claim is illegal interference by Community Memorial Hospital into the affairs of its medical staff, but he delayed a decision on the core issues of the case.

Judge Henry J. Walsh ruled that the doctors failed to prove "irreparable harm" from new hospital rules that physicians insist destroy their independence as a self-governing arm of the Ventura medical center and undermine their role as patient advocates.

"The court does not find that there is a risk of irreparable harm," the judge wrote late Monday in rejecting a request for a temporary restraining order against the hospital.

"The person most threatened by the recent changes in the bylaws of the hospital is Dr. Brian Brantner," Walsh found, referring to the plastic surgeon's recent loss of hospital privileges.

Brantner, a recently elected physician leader, lost his privileges because he refused to sign a statement declaring any potential financial conflict-of-interest with the hospital as part of a reapplication process. Such a declaration is a key sticking point in the dispute.

The judge ruled that Brantner's grievance should be filed individually and is not within the scope of the doctors' broader lawsuit.

In addition, Walsh refused to order the hospital to release to the medical staff about $250,000 that the doctors say was illegally seized from a physicians' fund by the administration so it could not be spent on attorney fees.

The judge, however, did not rule on any of the case's central issues. He set a May 27 hearing for arguments on the doctors' request for a court order to keep the hospital from enforcing the recent unilateral changes in staff bylaws.

"This ruling has foreclosed no issues," Walsh wrote in his one-page decision.

The ruling represented an early victory for 102-year-old Community Memorial in a lawsuit filed two weeks ago by the medical staff's executive committee and backed in meetings by more than 100 staff physicians.

Hospital attorney Peter Goldenring said the issues at the next hearing will be nearly the same as at Monday's. "And we think the court will continue to properly apply the law," he added.

Goldenring maintained that the medical staff has no legal standing and cannot sue the hospital and that its dissident doctors failed to follow the proper legal channel in pursuing their grievances.

Nothing said Monday by the physicians' lawyer indicates that Community Memorial is not providing high-quality care to its patients, Goldenring said.

"The patients are not jeopardized," he said. "A select group of physicians are conflicted economically, and that's what this lawsuit continues to be about."

Attorney Charles Bond, who represents the doctors, said the judge's ruling is not an important setback.

"This ruling by no means ends this matter: It doesn't foreclose the doctors' case at all," Bond said. "The medical staff will demonstrate the dangers of the hospital's conduct.... Law and policy require medical staffs to run their own affairs. Common sense says you look to doctors, not administrators, to monitor a hospital's quality of care."

Bond said Brantner and other physicians successfully ran against the administration's hand-picked candidates for staff leadership in November because of quality-of-care issues. And the hospital has been trying to punish them ever since, he said.

"Our doctors were worried about the hospital's priorities -- were they profits or patients?" Bond said.

Community Memorial has been embroiled in an internal fight for about a year, as the 242-bed hospital has tightened controls over its medical staff and physicians have bristled at an erosion of their traditional rights. After attempts at mediation, a group of physicians filed suit April 24.

The doctors say administrators tried to rig the November staff election, adopted an 18-page "code of conduct" to muzzle opponents, implemented a conflict-of-interest policy to disqualify select physicians from leadership positions and illegally allowed physicians to practice at the hospital without the staff's review.

Hospital lawyers deny the charges and say the dispute is purely financial. They say the courts have upheld the right of hospitals' boards of trustees as the ultimate authority at medical centers. Medical staff function as an advisory group only, they say.

Walsh heard those arguments for 2 1/2 hours Monday and questioned lawyers about them. He said he wanted to know why this case was in court in the first place, instead of being resolved like many physician-hospital disputes as an administrative complaint. "This is not stuff that happens every day," Bond responded. "Normally doctors and hospitals do try to work things out.... The reason the medical staff is here is because the actions of the [hospital] are radical.... They are the aggressors here."

In a question that brought chuckles from a courtroom gallery, the judge said he was troubled by the broad wording of some parts of the hospital's new code of conduct.

"Suppose somebody says at a cocktail party [hospital Chief Executive] Michael Bakst is a jerk?" Walsh asked. Would that be enough to get a doctor punished "because Michael Bakst is really a nice guy?"

Goldenring said it would be up to the Board of Trustees to interpret the code, and the offending doctor could appeal under state procedures to settle such disputes.

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