On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Sussex County.
Lynch, Kole and Petrella. Lynch, P.J.A.D.
Plaintiff, a licensed medical doctor specializing in radiology, appeals from a summary judgment dismissing his complaint for money damages against defendants who (except for defendant Stewart Ring, M.D.) as members of the Executive Credentials Committee of Newton Memorial Hospital, suspended plaintiff's staff privileges at the hospital on April 17, 1972. In granting summary judgment the trial judge held that plaintiff was precluded from maintaining this action because, as the judge said, "the same matters have already been litigated or should have been litigated" in a prior prerogative writ action (hereinafter the "Hospital" case)*fn1 wherein plaintiff sought to compel the hospital to readmit him to staff privileges when he was not reappointed after the 1972 annual staff review. The trial judge's stated grounds for dismissal of the complaint were: (1) operation of the "single controversy" doctrine; (2) collateral estoppel by reason of the judgment in the Hospital case, and (3) public policy considerations dictating that judgment as to qualifications for staff privilege be left to authorized medical staff members who should not be subject to damage suits for their actions in making such judgments.
In reviewing the trial judge's grounds for dismissal, it is necessary to understand the nature of the prior action against the hospital, the scope of the court's function therein, the basis of its decision, what was decided -- and what was not decided in that case -- and then to evaluate the same factors in the instant suit.
On April 17, 1972 the Executive Credentials Committee (ECC) of which defendants (except Stewart Ring, M.D.) were members, passed a resolution suspending the staff privileges
which Dr. Gareeb had held since March 1972. The resolution stated:
The privileges of Dr. Kaleel Gareeb in radiology be suspended because of lack of confidence in his x-ray reporting by many members of his staff. Because of an inability to communicate and lack of objectivity in his work it was recommended that he be dropped from his staff classification with the privilege of reapplying, in some category other than Radiology.
About three months later, on July 20, 1972, the board of governors rescinded the suspension ordered by ECC. In the meantime, however, Dr. Gareeb's annual staff appointment had expired. Dr. Gareeb thereafter applied for readmission to the staff. The ECC recommended that plaintiff not be reappointed. Hearings were conducted by an ad hoc committee established pursuant to the medical staff by-laws, and the board of governors reviewed the record of these hearings and supplemental materials submitted by plaintiff and others. At its meeting of May 9, 1973 the board reached the following conclusions:
(1) The following charges were not sustained:
(b) Lack of good reputation.
(2) The charges of lack of confidence and inability to work with others was sustained,
(3) In view of the detrimental effect of item #2 above the request for membership on the Hospital's Medical Staff for radiological privileges was denied.
The complaint in the prior Hospital case sought a review of the action of the board of governors (and not the suspension which had been ordered by ECC) denying the application for readmission and rescinded by the board. Dr. Gareeb contended that he was denied due process in the administrative proceedings, that the record did not support the conclusions reached, and that his former associate, Dr. Wylly, chairman of ECC, conspired with and influenced the participants in the proceedings, causing denial of staff privileges.
In his oral opinion in the Hospital case Judge Muir pointed out that the scope of his responsibility was merely a review of the hospital proceedings, "much like that required in a judicial review of any administrative decision." He defined the standard of his review to be "whether the Board made a reasonable judgment based upon the facts as presented to it."
Judge Muir noted that Article III of the hospital by-laws established the qualifications for staff membership: (1) competence in the doctor's particular field; (2) a good reputation, and (3) ability to work with others. He also noted that the by-laws provided that at a meeting of the ad hoc committee the affected physician had the right to cross-examine any witnesses but that the record showed that Dr. Gareeb had been denied the right to cross-examine Dr. Wylly. Judge Muir therefore remanded the matter to the committee to permit Dr. Gareeb to exercise that right. On the remand Dr. Gareeb, acting pro se , cross-examined Dr. Wylly but the board of governors affirmed its original determination. With the record thus amplified the judge again reviewed it.
In examining the proceedings before the ad hoc committee Judge Muir noted that the committee determined that Dr. Gareeb was not entitled to legal counsel and he was so advised. The judge reviewed the testimony of several witnesses who testified before the ad hoc committee, including plaintiff, Dr. Wylly and Drs. Fletcher, Weinstein, Leigner and Ring, who are defendants here, as well as Dr. Gross, a radiologist, who appeared for Dr. Gareeb. Judge Muir also noted that the witnesses and the committee had difficulty in understanding some of the questions asked by Dr. Gareeb because of his difficulty with the English language as he conducted his own "defense."
After reviewing the record in the Hospital proceedings Judge Muir held: (1) Dr. Gareeb was not denied due process; he was fully apprised of the charges against him; he was given a hearing where he had an opportunity to present his
case, and the fairness directed by the by-laws was present in the procedures followed; (2) there was no evidence of bad faith and the record evidenced a significant amount of good faith in the conduct not only of the board of governors but also of the ad hoc committee; (3) the board must be granted latitude in the exercise of its discretion; (4) the court should not make an independent judgment but rather merely must determine if there was an abuse of discretion, and (5) there was sufficient evidence in the record that Dr. Gareeb "lacked the ability to sit down and consult" and "the ability to work with others," to support the board's denial of his application. Thus, Judge Muir did not adjudicate the fact of Dr. Gareeb's unworthiness for staff privileges but only found that there was sufficient evidence in the record of the hospital proceedings to support the determination made by the board.
It is with that background that we consider what is alleged in the complaint in this matter. Here, plaintiff seeks money damages from the individual members of ECC and Dr. Stewart Ring, none of whom was a party in the prior suit. The complaint alleges that on April 17, 1972 defendants Weinstein, Catlett, Hall and Leigner, as members of ECC, in conspiracy with Dr. Wylly, "improperly, unlawfully, maliciously, illegally, tortiously and deliberately without notice to plaintiff, without affording him an opportunity to be heard" suspended his staff privileges.*fn2 As a result of defendants' actions plaintiff allegedly suffered harm, loss, injury and damage, and economic and financial hardship, for which he seeks compensatory and punitive damages. He further alleges that defendant Ring also ...