Appeals court: Doctor's 'credentialing file' protected from disclosure in medmal suit vs hospital

By D.M. Herra | Apr 12, 2019

Illinois First District Appellate Court  

An Illinois state appellate court says South Shore Hospital doesn't need to produce a doctor's "credentialing file" as part of a medical malpractice case, finding that the documents are privileged under state law.

The appellate panel's decision vacated a lower court’s order requiring the hospital to turn over the file, and finding the hospital in contempt for failing to do so.

The documents are part of the “credentialing file” of Dr. Chen Wang, who is named in the lawsuit along with the hospital and Highland Medical Center. The plaintiff in the case, Magen Willis, had requested the file during discovery. Willis, as special administrator of the estate of Towanda Willis, is suing the hospital, medical center and Wang for medical negligence related to care that Towanda Willis received in 2013, according to court documents.

South Shore claims nearly 150 pages of Wang’s credentialing file are privileged under the Illinois Medical Studies Act, which is intended to encourage members of the medical community to participate in peer evaluation in the interests of improving medicine. Without such safeguards, the justices noted, physicians may be reluctant to sit on peer-review committees and evaluate their colleagues.

Illinois First District Appellate Justice Mary K. Rochford

The law holds as confidential “all information, interviews, reports, statements, memoranda, recommendations, letters of reference or other third-party confidential assessments of a health care practitioner’s professional competence,” or any other records used by hospital committees for quality control, medical study or improving patient care. It is up to the party invoking the law to establish that privilege applies, which the appellate court found South Shore did. 

The hospital submitted the requested materials for the judge's inspection and submitted affidavits testifying that the contents of the documents fell under the law's privileges. Cook County Circuit Judge Moira S. Johnson was not won over by the hospital’s arguments, and in 2016 ordered it to turn over more than 100 pages South Shore had claimed were privileged.

When South Shore’s motion to reconsider was denied, the hospital filed a motion asking Judge Johnson to hold it in “friendly contempt” and sanction it $50. Had the court granted the motion, South Shore could have immediately appealed the discovery order, as state law makes an order finding a party in contempt and imposing monetary sanctions immediately appealable.

However, the circuit court denied South Shore’s request, and without finding it in contempt imposed a sanction of $100 a day for failure to comply with the discovery order. Further attempts by South Shore failed to get the court to reconsider, and in 2017 it filed a notice to appeal. Without the finding of contempt, the appellate court dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

With the case remanded to the circuit court, the hospital again asked the court to find it in friendly contempt, which the court did, paving the way for its appeal.

Once free to review the case, the appellate court found that all the documents in question fall clearly within the privileges under the law. According to court documents, the pages include letters of reference, peer evaluations of Wang’s professional qualifications and activities, and documents related to Wang’s applications for reappointment.

In vacating the lower court’s discovery order and reversing all sanctions and findings of contempt, the justices wrote that the “plaintiff herself concedes on appeal that, if this court’s review of the sealed supplemental record reveals that the . . . documents are in fact ‘letters of recommendation’ utilized by a ‘committee engaged in the peer-review process,’ then the circuit court would have erred in ordering the disclosure of those documents.”

The appellate decision was written by Justice Mary K. Rochford. Justices Thomas E. Hoffman and Bertina E. Lampkin concurred.

The decision was issued as an unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23, which limits the decision's use as precedent.

According to Cook County court records, Willis has been represented in the case by attorneys with the Phillips Law Offices, of Chicago.

Defendants have been represented by the firm of Cassiday Schade, of Chicago.

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Cassiday Schade Circuit Court of Cook County Illinois First District Appellate Court Phillips Law Offices South Shore Hospital

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