Tuesday, February 7, 2006
Doctors’ Suit Over Unpaid Bills Held SLAPP by C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A health care provider’s suit charging a number of insurers with conspiring to avoid paying the plaintiff’s bills for treating injured workers was ordered dismissed yesterday as a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
This district’s Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Presiding Justice Norman Epstein of Div. Four, said the action fell within the ambit of the anti-SLAPP statute because it arises out of constitutionally protected activity.
The insurers, Epstein explained, were exercising their right to petition the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board to find that the plaintiff was not entitled to payment because it was engaged in an illegal scheme in which fees were shared with non-doctors for generating cases, and that its fees were excessive.
The plaintiff, Premier Medical Management Systems and five of its doctors, accused the defendants of violating antitrust, unfair competition, and racketeering statutes. It alleged that the insurers sought to consolidate various cases in which they had objected to Premier’s bills solely to delay payment, and demanded $15 million in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages and injunctive relief.
Ten of the 21 defendants joined in the motion to strike. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jon Mayeda denied the motion, concluding that only one cause of action, for abuse of process, arose from protected activity within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP law, and that the plaintiff would likely prevail on the merits of that claim.
Epstein, however, said that all of the claims were subject to an anti-SLAPP motion because they related to the workers’ compensation proceedings.
“[W]e are satisfied that the gravamen of plaintiffs’ action arises from the activity of defendants in litigating lien claims through the workers’ compensation process,” the presiding justice wrote. “...The entire complaint falls within the scope of [Code of Civil Procedure] section 425.16,” which defines protected activity to include “any written or oral statement or writing made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by [an] executive . . . body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law.”
The plaintiff, Epstein went on to say, could not prevail on the merits of its claims because of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which holds that antitrust or similar liability generally cannot arise out of the petitioning for government redress of grievances. The doctors, he said, did not present evidence that would support a finding that any exception to the doctrine applies.
The case is Premier Medical Management Systems, Inc. v. California Insurance Guarantee Association, B179325.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company