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Speth v. Goode

November 9, 2010

CLAUS PETER SPETH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ROBERT GOODE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Rule 56(d)(2) motion for partial summary judgment [Docket Item 104]. Plaintiff seeks a judgment as to Defendants' liability for two counts of the Second Amended Complaint related to denial of training he needed to regain his eligibility to serve in the New Jersey medical examiner system: Count II (due process) and Count III (equal protection). There are two components of both counts. The first component involves the State Medical Examiner's decision to declare Plaintiff ineligible for service within the state examiner system and imposition of requirements for regaining eligibility including remedial training. The second component, the subject of this motion, is the State's alleged refusal to schedule the remedial training.*fn1 The principal issues are whether Plaintiff had a constitutionally protected property or liberty interest that was denied without due process when he was allegedly denied the training necessary to regain eligibility to participate in the state medical examiner system, and whether the denial of that training was so arbitrary as to violate the Equal Protection Clause. The Court heard oral argument on October 29, 2010.

II. BACKGROUND

The facts of this case, including its complicated procedural history, are set forth in this Court's Opinions of April 28, 1995 [Docket Item 16], December 29, 2004 [Docket Item 53], and June 23, 2010 [Docket Item 90]. For the purposes of this motion, the Court focuses on the facts as relevant to Counts II and III.

Under New Jersey law, county medical examiners are appointed by the county for five-year terms but subject to requirements of training or experience set by the State Medical Examiner by rule or regulation. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 52:17B-83. The State Medical Examiner is also in charge of authorizing "competent forensic pathologists" to conduct autopsies under the auspices of the Medical Examiner System. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 52:17B-88. The only individuals permitted to perform official autopsies under § 52:17B-88 are county medical examiners, deputy or assistant county medical examiners, or designated forensic pathologists.

N.J. Admin. Code § 13:49-7.1(d).

In February 1992, Plaintiff withdrew himself from consideration for reappointment as the Gloucester County Medical Examiner upon learning he would not win a reappointment vote. (Compl. ¶ 124.) Plaintiff believed he would not be reappointed because the State Medical Examiner, Dr. Goode, had informed the County of a lengthy report that Dr. Goode had composed criticizing Plaintiff's suitability as a medical examiner. (Id. ¶¶ 120-124.) Shortly thereafter, on April 10, 1992, Dr. Goode notified Dr. Speth that based on the findings of the report, Dr. Speth's "eligibility to serve as County Medical Examiner in the State of New Jersey is withdrawn," and his "eligibility to conduct death investigations under the auspices of the Medical Examiner System in New Jersey, and to serve as a designated pathologist are suspended for a period of 1 year effective this date." (Gross Decl. Ex. A.) The letter states that the privileges will be reinstated after a one-year suspension if Dr. Speth completes "a remedial course in the Laws, Rules and Regulations to be held by the State Medical Examiner" and completes "a 7 day internship under the supervision of the New Jersey State Medical Examiner Office." (Id.)

The requirements imposed by Dr. Goode's letter are mirrored in the regulations promulgated pursuant to the State Medical Examiner's statutory obligation to set requirements of training or experience for medical examiners. N.J. Admin. Code § 13:49-7.1; N.J. Stat. Ann. § 52:17B-83. The rules require that county medical examiners and their assistants, as well as designated forensic pathologists, must be fully licensed physicians "of recognized ability and good standing in [their] community," and have completed certain training. § 13:49-7.1. The training includes a certain number of hours of basic education; a course conducted by the Office of the State Medical Examiner on the laws, rules and regulations relating to the New Jersey Medical Examiner System; and seven days of internship training at the New Jersey State Medical Examiner Office. § 13:49-7.1(a). The regulations also provide for continuing education requirements, which include "any other necessary training." § 13:49-7.1(c). The administrative code provides that a declaration of ineligibility for failure to meet the requirements of § 13:49-7.1 is to be followed by a hearing. § 13:49-8.1(a). This requirement applies only to current county medical examiners, their assistants, designated forensic pathologists, and candidates for those positions. Id.

Plaintiff challenged the declaration of ineligibility and its reinstatement requirements in a hearing before New Jersey's Office of Administrative Law on March 7, 1994. He withdrew the appeal on December 5, 1994 before a final determination was made. Plaintiff does not allege that he sought appointment as county medical examiner, assistant county medical examiner, or designated forensic pathologist after 1992. The only representations that have been made to the Court are that he did not seek such positions. (Compl. ¶ 133; Amended Compl. ¶ 134; Def.'s Ex. G ("Hrg. Tr. of April 20, 1995") at 19-23.)

Dr. Speth did, however, eventually request the training necessary to become eligible for those positions. (Speth Decl. of Sept. 2, 2010 ¶ 3.) In late May 1995, after the original complaint in this federal action was filed, and over two years after the one-year suspension, Dr. Speth's attorney asked that the training discussed in Dr. Goode's letter be scheduled (Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts ¶ 6-8). In mid-July 1995, Dr. Speth's attorney sent the attorney for the State a follow-up letter stating, "I assume that your continuing failure to offer dates for the training specified in the letter of ineligibility reflects your acquiescence in my understanding that the course requirement has been waived." (Id. ¶ 8.) Though not specifically alleged in the Second Amended Complaint nor averred by Dr. Speth in his various affidavits, Plaintiff's counsel maintains that Plaintiff sought the training in order to regain his eligibility because the fact of his ineligibility was harmful to his reputation in his private practice. (Def.'s Ex. G at 20; Speth Decl. of Oct. 1, 2010 ¶ 16.)

The training was never scheduled.*fn2 On October 5, 1995, five months after he first indicated his interest in the training, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office indicted Plaintiff for criminal conduct related to an autopsy he performed in his private capacity in 1993, and for interfering with the official investigation of that conduct. Speth v. Goode, Civil No. 95-264, Slip Op. at 11 (D.N.J. December 29, 2004). The indictment featured three counts: third degree tampering with a witness, based on Dr. Speth's attempt in April 1994 to persuade Defendant Natarajan (the new State Medical Examiner) to withhold testimony or physical evidence in the criminal proceeding; fourth degree tampering with physical evidence based on his conduct during a 1993 medical examination; and fourth degree false swearing based on his report from the 1993 examination. Id. Plaintiff was convicted of third degree tampering with a witness on October 28, 1997. Id. The other two charges resulted in a deadlocked jury and were eventually dismissed upon Plaintiff's formal demand for a speedy retrial. Id. The claims at issue in this motion were added by amendment in 2004, after the stay of the case resulting from Plaintiff's criminal proceedings was lifted.

Plaintiff maintains that he had a right not to be deprived without due process of the training necessary to regain his eligibility, and that doing so for no legitimate reason violated the Equal Protection Clause. Defendants argue that since Plaintiff did not request training until two years after the scheduled date, which was while he was under criminal investigation for conduct related to work as a pathologist, Defendants had no constitutional obligation to offer the training, and that they had a rational basis for denying the training. As set forth below, the Court agrees with Defendants that Plaintiff has not established that he had a protected property or liberty interest in the training or in his eligibility to serve in the state examiner system, and Plaintiff has not established that the undisputed facts show that the State had no rational basis for denying the training.*fn3

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of ...


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