Appeals of disciplinary actions could become more open

A newspaper filed suit after a judge closed the disciplinary hearings of a South Carolina cardiologist whose license was suspended.

By Damon Adams — Posted Sept. 5, 2005

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The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that an administrative law judge was wrong not to give a reason for closing the disciplinary hearings of a Hilton Head Island cardiologist.

An attorney in the case said the decision will mean less secrecy in administrative law court proceedings, which occur when a physician appeals a disciplinary order made by the state's medical board.

"The case will have application for future appeals for physicians and may make those appeals more open," said Jay Bender, an attorney for the Hilton Head Island Packet newspaper, which brought the case to court.

The Island Packet filed the lawsuit against Administrative Law Court Judge Marvin Kittrell after he closed disciplinary hearings involving the cardiologist. The South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners had temporarily suspended the doctor's license in July 2001, after it found the doctor had been arrested and charged with several alcohol-related offenses.

But the administrative law court overturned the suspension, ruling that the board gave insufficient evidence of a substance-abuse problem. In August 2001, the board again tried to discipline the doctor, but the administrative judge blocked the order and sealed the records.

In May 2004, the board placed the doctor on temporary suspension after learning he had attempted to treat a patient while impaired. The Island Packet asked to attend the appeal, but the court did not respond. The newspaper asked the state Supreme Court to rule on requiring the administrative law court to explain why the hearing was closed.

The state's high court last month ruled the administrative law court did not comply with state law because it did not say why the disciplinary proceedings should be closed.

Cam Lewis, an attorney for Kittrell, could not be reached for comment. Robert Widener, an attorney for the cardiologist, whose name was kept anonymous in the ruling, said the impact of the decision is uncertain due to possible legislation that may change confidentiality of medical disciplinary matters.

Public access to formal complaints

While the Supreme Court decision makes administrative law court proceedings less secretive, state lawmakers have taken action to make formal complaints lodged against doctors more open to the public.

Under a new law, enacted in June, the medical board must make it publicly known when a formal complaint of misconduct is filed against a doctor. Patient records and identities and allegations dealing with a doctor's physical or mental incapacity will be kept confidential.

Unlike the past, the name of the complainant must be provided to the doctor who is the subject of the complaint. South Carolina Medical Assn. President Gerald Wilson, MD, said that is a welcome addition. "You're supposed to be able to face your accuser," said the Columbia, S.C., general and peripheral vascular surgeon.

Previously, some state medical leaders said they didn't oppose public access to physician discipline as long as the physician was given a chance to present his or her side.

Dr. Wilson said the medical association now has no objections to the newly enacted law. "The SCMA supports this system as long as it's fair and above board."

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Case at a glance

The Island Packet v. Marvin F. Kittrell, in his official capacity as chief judge, Administrative Law Court

Venue: South Carolina Supreme Court
At issue: Whether an administrative law court is required to give reason for closing physician disciplinary hearings.
Impact: The state's high court said reason must be given for such closed proceedings. The decision will mean more openness for some disciplinary hearings.

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External links

South Carolina Supreme Court opinion, The Island Packet v. Marvin F. Kittrell (link)

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