Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics
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QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise ("QHG"), appealed a circuit court's judgment awarding Amy Pertuit ("Amy") $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages. Leif Pertuit ("Leif") had been married to Deanna Mortensen; they had one child, Logan. Leif and Mortensen divorced in 2007. At some point, Mortensen was awarded sole physical custody of Logan, and Leif was awarded visitation. Leif later married Amy, a nurse. At the time of their marriage, Leif and Amy resided in Mobile, Alabama, and Mortensen resided in Enterprise. Eventually, tensions arose between Leif and Mortensen regarding the issue of visitation. In March 2014, Mortensen began sending text messages to Leif accusing Amy of being addicted to drugs. Around that time, Mortensen visited the attorney who had represented her in divorce from Leif. Mortensen expressed concern that Logan was in danger as a result of the visitation arrangement and asked her attorney to assist with obtaining a modification of Leif's visitation. In April 2014, Mortensen contacted Dr. Kathlyn Diefenderfer, a physician whom QHG employed as a hospitalist at Medical Center Enterprise. Mortensen had been Dr. Diefenderfer's patient, and Dr. Diefenderfer's son played sports with Logan. Mortensen informed Dr. Diefenderfer that Logan was scheduled to ride in an automobile with Amy from Enterprise to Mobile for Leif's visitation and expressed concern regarding Amy's ability to drive, given her belief that Amy was using drugs and had lost her nursing license. Dr. Diefenderfer used a hospital computer to check on Amy's drug prescriptions. After reviewing that information,Dr. Diefenderfer told Mortensen: "All I can tell you is I would not put my son in the car." Mortensen went back to her attorney, informing him that Dr. Diefenderfer had acquired the necessary proof of Amy's drug use. Amy received a copy of the modification petition, and was convinced her private health information had been obtained in violation of HIPAA, and filed complaints to the Enterprise Police Department, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Alabama Bar Association, and the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners. A grand jury indicted Mortensen and Dr. Diefenderfer, which were later recalled, but the two entered diversion agreements with the district attorney's office. Amy then filed suit alleging negligence and wantonness, violation of her right to privacy, the tort of outrage and conspiracy. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the trial court erred by denying QHG's motion for a judgment as a matter of law with respect to Amy's asserted theories of respondeat superior; ratification; and negligent and wanton training, supervision, and retention because there was not substantial evidence indicating that QHG was liable to Amy as a consequence of Dr. Diefenderfer's conduct under any of those theories. The trial court's judgment awarding Amy $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages was reversed, and judgment rendered in favor of QHG. View "QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise v. Pertuit" on Justia Law

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Michael Hubbard was charged with 23 counts of violating Alabama's "Code of Ethics for Public Officials, Employees, Etc.," sections 36-25-1 to -30, Ala. Code 1975 ("the Ethics Code"). The Circuit Court entered a judgment on a jury verdict convicting Hubbard on 12 of the 23 counts. Hubbard appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed the convictions on 11 counts and reversed the conviction on 1 count. Hubbard petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for certiorari review of the 11 counts affirmed by the Court of Criminal Appeals, which was granted. After that review, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals as to Hubbard's convictions on six counts, but reversed as to the convictions on five counts because they were based on insufficient evidence or incorrect interpretations of the Ethics Code. View "Ex parte Michael Gregory Hubbard." on Justia Law

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Jimmy Leftwich, Jr., appealed a circuit court's denial of his motion for a new trial in his negligence action against Steven Brewster. Leftwich alleged that Brewster breached a duty to competently inspect a house that Leftwich purchased. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Brewster. On appeal, Leftwich contended the trial court erred in failing to disqualify two jurors for cause and that the trial court erroneously excluded vital evidence that provided estimated costs to repair the home. After review, the Alabama Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the judgment of the trial court. View "Leftwich v. Brewster" on Justia Law

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The estate of Ed Young, deceased, by and through its personal representative, Fannie Pollard, appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of H.C. Partnership d/b/a Hill Crest Behavioral Health Services ("Hill Crest") in a wrongful-death action alleging medical malpractice. On May 7, 2017, the estate of Ed Young sued Hill Crest alleging that Hill Crest caused Young's death on May 9, 2015, by improperly administering the antipsychotic drugs Haldol and Thorazine to Young as a chemical restraint without taking a proper medical history and evaluating him. The style of the complaint indicated that it was filed by the "Estate of Ed Young and Fannie M. Pollard as personal representative of the Estate of Ed Young." On May 8, 2017, the probate court appointed Fannie M. Pollard as administrator of Young's estate. On May 9, 2017, the two-year limitations period under Alabama's wrongful-death act expired. On June 15, 2017, the estate filed an amended complaint, adding additional claims against Hill Crest. The amended complaint listed as plaintiffs the estate and Pollard as the personal representative of the estate. The parties then engaged in discovery. In 2019, Hill Crest moved for summary judgment, arguing that Pollard was not the personal representative of the estate when the complaint was filed, and therefore she lacked capacity to bring suit. Furthermore, Hill Crest argued the complaint was a nullity and there was no properly filed underlying action to which Pollard's subsequent appointment as personal representative could relate. The Alabama Supreme Court found Hill Crest's argument regarding the relation-back doctrine as unavailing: "the relation-back doctrine 'simply recognizes and clarifies what has already occurred' in that application of the doctrine does not extend the limitations period but merely allows substitution of a party in a suit otherwise timely filed." Summary judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Pollard v. H.C. Partnership d/b/a Hill Crest Behavioral Health Services" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Warner Wiggins appeals a circuit court's order compelling him to arbitrate his claims against Warren Averett, LLC. Warren Averett was an accounting firm. Eastern Shore Children's Clinic, P.C. ("Eastern Shore"), a pediatric medical practice, was a client of Warren Averett. In September 2010, while Wiggins, who was a medical doctor, was a shareholder and employee of Eastern Shore, Warren Averett and Eastern Shore entered an agreement pursuant to which Warren Averett was to provide accounting services to Eastern Shore ("the contract"). The contract contained an arbitration clause. Thereafter, Wiggins and Warren Averett became involved in a billing dispute related to the preparation of Wiggins's personal income-tax returns. In 2017, Wiggins filed a single-count complaint alleging "accounting malpractice" against Warren Averett. Warren Averett filed an answer to Wiggins's complaint, asserting, among other things, that Wiggins's claims were based on the contract and were thus subject to the arbitration clause. A majority of the Alabama Supreme Court concluded the determination of whether Wiggins' claims were covered under the terms of the arbitration clause was delegated to an arbitrator to decide. Therefore, it affirmed the trial court's order. View "Warner W. Wiggins v. Warren Averett, LLC" on Justia Law

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Sonya C. Edwards and Edwards Law, LLC (collectively, "Edwards"), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct a trial court to enter a summary judgment in their favor in an action filed against them by Ivan Gray. Sonya previously represented Gray in proceedings in federal court. In 2015, after mediation and a settlement, those proceedings concluded with the entry of a final judgment. Thereafter, Gray sought to set aside the settlement, and Sonya terminated her representation of Gray. In 2017, Gray sued Edwards alleging Edwards had entered into a contract with Gray in June 2014 in which Sonya agreed to represent Gray in the federal proceedings in exchange for a contingency fee of 50%. Gray alleged that he paid a total retainer fee in the amount of $14,380.85 to cover expenses. According to Gray's complaint, when his federal case concluded, Edwards disclosed that the actual expenses amounted to $4,516.77, therefore, he felt he was entitled to a refund of $9,864.08. When the refund was not forthcoming, Gray alleged Edward converted his retainer and breached the contract between the two. The Supreme Court determined the "act or omission or failure giving rise to the claim" occurred on September 16, 2015, and that was the operative date from which to measure the applicable two-year limitations period. Gray did not file his action until October 27, 2017, which was beyond the two-year limitations period. Accordingly, Edwards has demonstrated a clear legal right to have a summary-judgment entered in her favor. View "Ex parte Sonya C. Edwards and Edwards Law, LLC." on Justia Law

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Antoinette Belle, as personal representative of the estate of Edith Mitchell, deceased, sued various health-care providers that treated Mitchell while she was hospitalized in April 2009. Belle eventually reached settlements with all of those health-care providers except two physicians. The trial court entered a summary judgment against Belle and in favor of the two physicians, bringing the medical-malpractice action to a close. Belle then filed a legal-malpractice case against four attorneys and three law firms that had represented her at varying times in the medical-malpractice action, alleging they had been negligent in representing her. Belle later brought an additional claim of fraudulent concealment. The attorneys and law firms denied the allegations against them, arguing that Belle's claims were untimely and that they had no factual or legal basis. The trial court agreed and entered judgments in favor of the attorneys and law firms. Belle appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed judgment in the attorneys and law firms. View "Belle v. Goldasich, Jr., et al." on Justia Law

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Ronald Heining and his son, Tyler Heining, appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Robert J. Dean, Jr., Public Works Director of the City of Anniston, and Darryl Abernathy, a supervisor in the Public Works Department, in the Heinings' action seeking damages for false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and conspiracy. In June or July 2012, Ronald Heining discovered a sealed envelope that had been slipped underneath the door at his place of employment, B&T Supplies, which was owned by Ronald's son Tyler; B&T at the time sold janitorial supplies to the City of Anniston ("the City"). Ronald was the contact person for those sales. The envelope stated on the outside "Deliver Ben Little" and contained two or three pages of ethical violations allegedly committed by several employees of the Public Works Department, including Dean and Abernathy. Little was a councilman for the City. After reviewing the contents of the envelope, Ronald took the envelope and its contents to Councilman Little, who he claimed he did not know. Ronald and Councilman Little, in turn, took the information to Don Hoyt, the city manager, who conducted an extensive investigation into the alleged ethical violations. Councilman Little was arrested and was charged with violating the City's council-manager act; James Fluker, a Public Works employee, was a witness in that case. Sometime after Councilman Little's arrest, Fluker told Abernathy that Ronald Heining had tried to bribe him not to testify against Councilman Little. The bribery and witness-intimidation charges against the Heinings were ultimately nolle prossed. The Heinings, thereafter, sued Dean and Abernathy, asserting claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and conspiracy. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded after review that although the facts concerning Fluker's reliability and credibility were disputed, those facts had no bearing on whether police acted on its own initiative in believing a crime had been committed. The summary judgment in favor of Dean and Abernathy on the claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution were affirmed. View "Heining v. Abernathy" on Justia Law

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Kathryn Honea purported to appeal a judgment in favor of Raymond James Financial Services, Inc. ("Raymond James"), and Bernard Michaud, an employee of Raymond James (collectively, "RJFS"), in the underlying action seeking to vacate an arbitration award. In 1997, Honea opened several investment accounts with Raymond James. In March 2006, Honea sued RJFS alleging that her accounts had been mismanaged. She sought damages for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, wantonness, fraud, and violations of the Alabama Securities Act. The case went to arbitration. An arbitration panel entered an award in favor of RJFS, and on January 14, 2008, Honea filed in the trial court a motion to vacate that arbitration award. In this case's fourth trip before the Alabama Supreme Court, Honea's 2017 motion to vacate interjected issues and sought relief beyond the scope of the remand action ordered in "Raymond James III," which directed a Rule 59(g) hearing. "The trial court would have no jurisdiction to rule on it, and any ruling, whether express or a denial by operation of law, would be void." Accordingly, the Court dismissed this appeal. View "Honea v. Raymond James Financial Services, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Alabama Peace Officers' Standards and Training Commission ("the Commission") petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for mandamus relief to direct the circuit court to dismiss a complaint against it filed by Bryan Grimmett. The Commission revoked Grimmett's law-enforcement certification. The Court of Civil Appeals reversed that portion of the trial court's judgment fully reinstating Grimmett's law-enforcement certification because Grimmett had conceded in the record that he had not satisfied the 80-hour refresher-training course required for reinstatement of his certification. At the time the Court of Civil Appeals issued its May 2017 opinion, the Commission had in place a rule requiring a previously certified law-enforcement officer absent from employment as a law-enforcement officer for two years or more to successfully complete an approved 80-hour academy recertification course. In October 2017, the Commission amended its rule on certification to include, among other things, a provision that, if the Commission approves an application for admission to certification training of a law-enforcement officer absent from law enforcement for more than 10 years, that applicant must satisfactorily complete the regular basic-training academy, which is a 520-hour course. It was undisputed that Grimmett had been not employed as a law-enforcement officer since 2000. Grimmett filed his complaint with the circuit court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the Commission, asserting that he was provisionally offered a job in law enforcement in December 2017; that he attempted to enroll in the 80-hour refresher- training program; and that the Commission refused to allow him to enroll in the refresher-training program, instead requiring him to complete the full 520-hour basic-academy training course. The Commission moved the circuit court to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the Commission, as an agency of the State of Alabama, is entitled to sovereign immunity. Finding that the Commission established a clear legal right to mandamus relief, the Alabama Supreme Court granted its petition and directed the circuit court to dismiss Grimmett's complaint. View "Ex parte Ex parte Alabama Peace Officers' Standards and Training Commission." on Justia Law