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Bonni v. St. Joseph Health System (SC S244148 per curiam 7/29/21) Retaliation/Hospital Peer Review/Anti-SLAPP 

By July 29, 2021July 31st, 2021Anti-SLAPP, Peer Review, Retaliation

Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center BurbankUnder California law, hospitals must use a process of professional peer review to evaluate physicians’ qualifications for medical staff privileges.  (See Bus. & Prof. Code, §§ 805, 809–809.9.)  Because the loss of privileges can significantly limit a physician’s ability to practice medicine, peer review proceedings are a frequent subject of litigation in California courts.  And as the number of lawsuits challenging peer review determinations has grown, so too has the number of motions to strike under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16.  Familiarly known as the anti-SLAPP statute, this provision allows defendants to seek early dismissal of unmeritorious claims arising from protected speech and petitioning activities.  (Code Civ. Proc., § 425.16, subd. (b).)

We have previously held that the anti-SLAPP statute’s protections extend to speech and petitioning in connection with hospital peer review.  (See Kibler v. Northern Inyo County Local Hospital Dist. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 192.)  This case requires us to consider the scope and limits of those protections.  Plaintiff, a physician, alleges the defendant hospitals and members of its medical staff unlawfully retaliated against him for raising concerns about patient care.  He says this retaliation began with the suspension of his staff privileges and culminated in the termination of those privileges after peer review.  The hospitals seek to strike the retaliation claims under the anti-SLAPP statute.  They contend that any claim arising from the peer review process necessarily targets protected speech or petitioning activity and therefore must be afforded anti-SLAPP protection.  We hold otherwise.  While some of the forms of retaliation alleged in the complaint — including statements made during and in connection with peer review proceedings and disciplinary reports filed with official bodies — do qualify as protected activity, the discipline imposed through the peer review process does not.  Thus, while the hospitals may seek to strike some of the physician’s retaliation claims, they are not entitled to wholesale dismissal of these claims under the anti-SLAPP law.