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Springer v. Henry

January 18, 2006


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware (D.C. No. 00-cv-00885) District Judge: Honorable Gregory M. Sleet.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sloviter, Circuit Judge.


Argued October 26, 2005

Before: SLOVITER, FISHER, and GREENBERG, Circuit Judges.


The case before us can be viewed on two levels. On one level, we have an appeal by an employer from an adverse verdict in favor of an employee (here independent contractor) on his claim of unlawful termination in retaliation for speech protected by the First Amendment. On the other level, the amicus curiae, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, argues that the issue transcends the relationship between the parties and instead impacts thousands of patients damaged as a result of hospital errors, incompetence, wrongdoing, and cover-ups. On either level, our task is to review the law applied by the District Court on a plenary basis and ascertain whether there is sufficient evidence to support the jury verdict.


The Appellant (defendant in the District Court), Renata Henry, has been the Director of the Division of Alcoholism, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health ("Division"), the division of the State of Delaware's Department of Health and Social Services ("DHSS") responsible for the Delaware Psychiatric Center ("DPC" or "Center") since July 1, 1999. Dr. Gregg Sylvester was the Secretary of DHSS from October, 1997 through January, 2001, the time period at issue here.

Plaintiff/Appellee, Dr. David T. Springer, a psychiatrist, was an independent contractor at the DPC from July 1, 1991 until June 30, 2000 pursuant to nine successive one-year contracts. Although each contract specified that Dr. Springer could be terminated without cause upon fifteen days' notice, and none of the contracts guaranteed renewal, at the end of each contract year Dr. Springer received and signed a proposed contract for the following year.

Each of Dr. Springer's yearly contracts since July 1, 1996 specified his duties as "[t]o provide psychiatric services to patients at Delaware Psychiatric Center." App. at 1431. The parties agree that in practice Dr. Springer also served as the director of the DPC psychiatric residency training program from 1993 until 2000, the elected president and the chairperson of its Medical Staff Executive Committee from 1999 to 2000, and a member of its credentials committee from 1993 to 2000.

In a series of five memoranda dated from October 21, 1999, to January 26, 2000, Dr. Springer voiced his critical opinions on matters relating to the policies, procedures and administration of the DPC. These were introduced into evidence at trial as Plaintiff's Exhibits PX-1 through 5. Other physicians, medical residents, and staff members signed onto these memoranda. We summarize them below but because they are central to the issues before us they are included verbatim in the Appendix to this opinion.

PX 1, a memorandum dated October 21, 1999 entitled "Concerns about Delaware Psychiatric Center," contains a long list of inadequacies on patient care and safety issues.

App. at 1384. It describes the DPC as failing in the task of treating psychiatric patients with high quality care in a respectful and safe environment. The memorandum charges that there was "gross understaffing of the hospital;" that experienced psychiatrists had left because "they declined to compromise the patient care and safety;" that security was poor; that members of the staff had subjected patients to demeaning comments; that patients had complained of being physically abused; that "the patient units lack[ed] discipline due to lack of training provided to the aides and technicians;" and that "[s]taff [was] afraid to speak out on issues affecting patient care and safety." App. at 1384-86. In the final paragraph, the memorandum states that as "hospital administration has shown lack of concern over this it is time that these issues were put in front of legislature and electorate of Delaware whose family members come here for treatment and whose tax money is put into work." App. at 1387. Although the memorandum was signed by 11 psychiatric residents, Dr Springer conceded that he helped to edit the language of PX 1. The memorandum shows copies going to Governor Carper, the Secretary of Health & Social Services Sylvester, the Hospital Director Simono, the Medical Director Dr. Smayer, the Training Director Dr. Springer, Senators of Delaware, the DHCC, the Department of Public Safety, and the News Journal, and there was testimony that it was handed to Governor Carper during one of his visits to the hospital.

PX 2, a memorandum dated November 23, 1999 (just one month after the earlier memorandum), from Dr. Springer, in his capacity as president of the DPC Medical Staff Executive Committee and co-signed by five other physicians, is captioned "Critical Issues in the Care of the Mentally Ill in Delaware" and is addressed to the DPC Governing Body. App. at 1388. It summarizes the earlier "plea for help" for the beleaguered program previously outlined by the DPC medical residents, and, in Dr. Springer's own words, "was basically a plea to the Governor, the hospital director, Ms. Henry, and other people." App. at 780. It states, inter alia, that "the capacity of DPC to provide [Delaware citizens with severe and/or long term mental illness] with treatment is deteriorating and facing collapse as of July 2000." App. at 1388.

The third memorandum, PX 3, is dated December 2, 1999, less than two weeks later, and was written by Dr. Springer on behalf of the DPC Medical Staff Executive Committee. Dr. Springer testified that it was handed to a Medicare reviewer who was on campus "in hopes that the Medicare folks would help us in terms of some of the concerns that we had with patients." App. at 784-85. It was signed by four physicians in addition to Dr. Springer, and, in its own words, sought to bring attention to the unresolved issues at DPC, and "proposed actions that may begin us on the road to protecting and preserving patient care and safety." App. at 1390. The solutions proposed were to "Address Safety Issues as Soon as Possible;" "Fix Understaffing/Personnel Issues as Soon as Possible;" and "Increase Physicians' Authority to Ensure Quality and Safe Patient Care." Id.

PX 4, dated December 16, 1999, two weeks later, was written by Dr. Springer, in his capacity as President of the DPC Medical Staff, and Psychiatric Residency Training Director, and is addressed to the DPC Governing Body Members and consists of a proposed agenda for the December 22, 1999 Governing Body Meeting. That agenda lists some of the areas that the medical staff believed needed to be addressed under the headings "Need for a Psychiatric Residency Program at DPC," "Need to Attract and Retain Dedicated and Qualified Teaching Attendings" and "Contingency Plans." App. at 1392-93. Under the latter heading, the proposal urges that "if a decision is made to close the residency program, the current residents should be given the option of completing their entire training at DPC." App. at 1393.

The fifth memorandum, PX 5, was Dr. Springer's report to the DPC Governing Body, entitled "Medical Staff President Report to the Governing Body Meeting of January 26, 2000." App. at 1394. The evidence reflects that it was not presented until the March 21, 2000 DPC meeting. The Report summarized the issues of concern affecting patient care at DPC that the Medical Staff Executive Committee Officers proposed for discussion by the Governing Body. The Report stated that "[t]he most glaring issue at hand is that the DPC medical staff is now in open disagreement with the hospital administration about how the patients should be treated." App. at 1400. It notes, inter alia, that "the situation has deteriorated to the point that physicians are essentially being asked to practice medicine at below their own minimum ethical standards on a routine basis" and lists "New Concerns Around Patient Care, Credentialing [sic] and Liability Issues for DPC." Id. It also discusses "New Patient Care Issue," "Ethical Issues," and "Continued Concerns Around Patient Care and Safety." App. at 1400-04. PX 5 additionally contains the two statements that Henry argues are "falsities" that allegedly deprive the communications of their First Amendment protection - one that she describes as alleging Medicare fraud and the other referring to an applicant as "unlicensed." Those statements will be discussed at length hereafter.

On May 12, 2000, less than two months after Dr. Springer's presentation of the fifth memorandum, Henry notified Dr. Springer by letter that his contract at DPC would not be renewed upon its expiration on June 30, 2000, and that the Division would be publishing Requests for Proposals (RFP), to which Dr. Springer was "free to respond." App. at 1405.

Delaware state law had changed in 1996 to require that contracts for professional services exceeding $50,000 per year, such as those under which Dr. Springer worked, be awarded through a process of public bidding. 29 Del. Code Ann. tit. 29, §§ 6913, 6981 (2005). Dr. Sylvester instructed his Division Directors, including Henry, in accordance with these changes. Since May, 1999, the Division has published Requests for Proposals for the provision of psychiatric services to various Division programs, including the DPC. Dr. Springer did not respond to any of those Requests for Proposals.

It is Dr. Springer's position that he was the only physician whose contract was not renewed before or during the year 2000, ostensibly because of the new state requirement. Although Henry relies on this 1996 state law revision as one of the bases for non-renewal of Dr. Springer's contract, she produced no evidence that she had sent any such notice to anyone else.*fn1

On October 6, 2000, Dr. Springer initiated the instant action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking monetary damages and injunctive relief*fn2 for the non-renewal of his contract, claiming that said non-renewal constituted retaliation for his engagement in speech protected under the First Amendment. On November 9, 2001, Henry moved for summary judgment. She argued that Springer's speech was not protected because it addressed his personal concerns, it was disruptive, he would have been terminated because he failed to bid for renewal, he suffered no damages, and that Henry was entitled to qualified immunity. Dr. Springer moved for partial summary judgment on the ground that his speech was protected by the First Amendment, and argued that Henry was not entitled to qualified immunity because his First Amendment right was clearly established.

In a Memorandum and Order entered March 12, 2002 (the "March Order"), the District Court denied Henry's motion for summary judgment and granted Dr. Springer's motion. The Court held that (1) Dr. Springer's "speech was protected under the First Amendment" because "[t]he content of Springer's speech clearly addressed a matter of public concern" and (2) Henry "is not entitled to qualified immunity" because "Springer's right to engage in speech was clearly established at the time he was terminated," and there were no facts to show that Springer's comments had any disruptive effect. App. at 49. The court stated, in conclusion, "a jury must decide whether his protected speech motivated his termination, whether he would have been terminated in the absence of the speech, and whether he suffered damages." App. at 16. The case proceeded to trial.

On April 1, 2004, the jury returned a verdict for Dr. Springer. In response to special interrogatories, it found the following: (1) Dr. Springer had "proven by a preponderance of the evidence that his protected activity under the First Amendment reflected in Plaintiff's Exhibits 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 was a substantial or motivating factor in the decision to not renew or offer him a new contract," App. at 18-19; (2) PX 2, 3, 4, and 5 were the instances of protected activity for the decision not to renew Henry's contract; (3) Henry had failed to prove "by a preponderance of the evidence that regardless of plaintiff's exercise of his First Amendment rights, [that she] would . . . not have renewed his contract in July 2000," App. at 19; (4) Dr. Springer suffered actual injury from the non-renewal of his contract; (5) the damages that Dr. Springer had suffered which were proximately caused by the non-renewal of his contract were $285,464 to the present and $588,431 into the future, App. 20; and (6) $100,000 in non-economic damages. In an additional interrogatory, the jury found that (7) Henry "acted recklessly, intentionally or maliciously with regard to plaintiff," App. at 22, and awarded Dr. Springer $25,000 in punitive damages in connection with the latter finding.

On September 17, 2004, the District Court entered a memorandum opinion and order on the parties' motion for post-trial relief ("September Opinion") in which it upheld the jury verdict in all respects but struck the $100,000 award of ...

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