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Belnap v. Howard

Supreme Court of Utah

February 28, 2019

LeGrand P. Belnap, M.D., Petitioner,
v.
Ben Howard, M.D., and Steven Mintz, M.D., Respondents.

          Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Matthew Bates No. 160902832

         On Appeal of Interlocutory Order

          Peter Stirba, Scott G. Higley, Salt Lake City, for petitioners

          Francis M. Wikstrom, Juliette P. White, Alan S. Mouritsen, Salt Lake

          City, for respondents Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Judge Kate Appleby joined.

          Having recused herself, Justice Petersen did not participate herein. Court of Appeals Judge Kate Appleby sat.

          OPINION

          DURRANT, CHIEF JUSTICE

         Introduction

         ¶1 Rule 26(b)(1) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure establishes discovery and evidentiary privileges for statements made and documents prepared as part of a health care provider's peer review process. In this case, the parties dispute whether there is an exception to these privileges for information provided in bad faith. Dr. LeGrand P. Belnap was denied discovery as to allegedly defamatory statements made by Drs. Ben Howard and Steven Mintz in peer review meetings. These statements concerned Dr. Belnap's application for surgical privileges at Jordan Valley Medical Center (JVMC). After the district court denied Dr. Belnap discovery, he filed this interlocutory appeal. Because we find that there is no bad faith exception to rule 26(b)(1), we affirm.

         Background

         ¶2 In 2009, Dr. Belnap obtained active staff membership and full surgical privileges at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center (SLRMC), a facility owned by Iasis Healthcare Corporation (Iasis). In 2013, SLRMC's Medical Executive Committee, which included Dr. Howard, summarily suspended Dr. Belnap's privileges. The following month, a hearing was held. SLRMC later vacated Dr. Belnap's suspension in full, and he returned to full surgical privileges.

         ¶3 In September 2013, Dr. Belnap submitted an application to Jordan Valley Medical Center (JVMC)-also owned by Iasis-for appointment to the medical staff and for clinical privileges. In the course of reviewing Dr. Belnap's application, Jordan Valley's Medical Executive Committee (the Executive Committee) solicited input from physicians with whom Dr. Belnap had previously worked, including Drs. Howard and Mintz.

         ¶4 In May 2015, "Dr. Belnap's counsel received a redacted copy of the minutes from a secret [Executive Committee] meeting held on January 21, 2015." In an amended complaint, Dr. Belnap brought four claims: defamation, tortious interference with prospective economic relations, state antitrust violations, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The amended complaint describes in specific detail the statements Drs. Howard and Mintz allegedly made on January 21, 2015.

         ¶5 Drs. Howard and Mintz filed two motions seeking to strike Dr. Belnap's amended complaint or to classify it as privileged under the peer review privilege. The district court denied both motions. Dr. Belnap then filed a notice of deposition of both Drs. Howard and Mintz. Drs. Howard and Mintz filed a statement of discovery issues asking the district court, under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) and Utah Code section 26-25-3, to prohibit the discovery, use, or admission into evidence of several documents created during the peer review process and the testimony provided on January 21. The district court granted the restrictions sought by Drs. Howard and Mintz in their statement of discovery issues.

         ¶6 Dr. Belnap timely filed a petition for interlocutory appeal in this court. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 5 and Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).

         Issue and Standard of Review

         ¶7 We must determine whether there is an exception to the peer review privilege in Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) for statements made in bad faith. "The existence of a privilege is a question of law for the court, which we review for correctness, giving no deference to the trial court's determination."[1] And a "district court's interpretation of a rule of civil procedure presents a question of law that is reviewed for correctness."[2]

         Analysis

         ¶8 Dr. Belnap argues that Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1)'s privilege language is ambiguous and, when read in conjunction with the legislative note accompanying that rule, includes a bad faith exception. Because we find that there is no bad faith exception in the plain language or the legislative note, we affirm.

         I. There Is No Bad Faith Exception to Rule 26(b)(1)'s Peer Review Privilege

         ¶9 We are asked to interpret the discovery privilege provided by Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1). "[W]hen construing a statute, we seek to give effect to the intent of the Legislature."[3] So we "begin with the plain language of the provision at issue in our broader effort to ascertain the intent of the Legislature disclosed by the language of the act as a whole, the act's operation, and its purpose."[4] "Only when we find ambiguity in the statute's plain language need we seek guidance from the legislative history and relevant policy considerations."[5]

         ¶10 In this case, nothing in the text of rule 26(b)(1) indicates the existence of a bad faith exception. The rule states, in relevant part:

Privileged matters that are not discoverable or admissible in any proceeding of any kind or character include all information in any form provided during and created specifically as part of a request for an investigation, the investigation, findings, or conclusions of peer review, care review, or quality assurance processes of any organization of health care providers as defined in the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act for the purpose of evaluating care provided to reduce morbidity and mortality or to improve the quality of medical care, or for the purpose of peer review of the ethics, competence, or professional conduct of any health care provider.[6]

         The text of rule 26(b)(1) does not mention a bad faith exception. The rule prohibits discovery of privileged matters "in any proceeding of any kind" and includes "all information in any form" provided at any stage of a peer review, care review, or quality assurance process.[7]This language is certainly broad enough to prohibit even the discovery of statements made in bad faith as part of a peer review meeting.[8]

         ¶11 The language does reference the definitions in the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act, but nothing in that act can be read to create a bad faith exception to rule 26(b)(1).[9] So under the plain meaning of the text of rule 26(b)(1), ...


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