A physician may proceed with her hostile work environment claims after a hospital revoked her clinical privileges, but may not continue with her antitrust claims because she failed to plead an antitrust injury, a federal district court ruled.  Levitin and Chicago Surgical Clinic, Ltd v. Northwest Community Hospital, et al., No. 13 C 5553 (N.D. Ill. August 12, 2014). 

The plaintiff is a general surgeon in an independent surgical practice.  In 2008 and 2009, she complained to Northwest Community Hospital (NCH) that a physician working for a competitor of the plaintiff’s surgical practice harassed her verbally and physically at the hospital because of her gender, ethnicity and religion.  NCH assured the plaintiff that it had instructed the physician to refrain from this conduct.  In 2010, this physician and colleagues from his surgical practice took steps to cause the Medical Executive Committee to initiate a review of the plaintiff’s cases over a six-year period.  An investigative committee subsequently recommended that no corrective action be taken against the plaintiff.  In 2011, acting on a separate complaint about the plaintiff’s care, the NCH Board terminated her clinical privileges notwithstanding a recommendation from a Medical Staff committee to take no corrective action against her.

The plaintiff filed suit against NCH, the competing surgical practice and three of its surgeons alleging federal antitrust violations, hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and various state law claims.  The defendants moved to dismiss the suit.  

The defendants argued the federal Health Care Quality Improvement Act and a similar Illinois law provided them immunity from the suit.  The Court rejected this argument, finding that the allegations that the defendants did not act with a reasonable belief that they acted in furtherance of quality health care and that they engaged in willful and wanton misconduct were sufficient to deprive the defendants of immunity. 

The Court denied the motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s Title VII claims, finding the plaintiff’s allegations, including that NCH controlled which facilities, equipment and staff she could use, controlled which general surgeries and procedures she could perform, and determined her surgery schedule, provide plausible grounds to conclude that the plaintiff was an employee of NCH for purposes of Title VII.  The court found these allegations could demonstrate that NCH exercised sufficient control over the plaintiff to establish an indirect employer-employee relationship even though NCH argued it did not employ her.

The Court also found that while the alleged harassment was not explicitly anti-Russian, anti-Semitic or anti-woman, the allegations provide plausible grounds to conclude the conduct was motivated by hostility to her protected classes.  Finally, the court concluded that the harasser’s allegedly “relentless conduct,” if true, would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that the conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an unlawful hostile environment.  The court retained supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims because the defendants did not make any substantive challenge to them.

The Court dismissed the antitrust claims because the plaintiff failed to plead an antitrust injury, which must involve an injury to consumers.  The Court concluded the plaintiff failed to allege an antitrust injury because the complaint showed that her services remained available to consumers through her clinical privileges at other local hospitals.  Although the antitrust claims were dismissed, this case highlights the potential risk for hospitals when disputes arise among members of their medical staff who work in competing practices.