3rd Circuit backs whistle-blowing doctor

By The Associated Press

DOVER, Del. — A federal appeals court yesterday upheld a lower court ruling in favor of a former Delaware Psychiatric Center physician who lost his job after speaking out about problems at the state-run hospital.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia dismissed claims by Renata Henry, director of the Delaware Division of Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Mental Health. Henry had challenged a jury's decision to award Dr. David Springer nearly $1 million, including $25,000 in punitive damages against Henry.

"The evidence supports the jury finding that Henry acted at least recklessly or callously, if not intentionally or maliciously, with respect to Dr. Springer's constitutionally protected rights," Judge Dolores Sloviter wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel in Springer v. Henry.

Springer filed a federal lawsuit in October 2000 after he was told his contract to provide psychiatric services at DPC would not be renewed. The decision by state officials came after he wrote a series of memoranda criticizing patient care and safety at the hospital.

Among other things, the memoranda, several of which were signed by other DPC physicians, raised concerns about staffing shortages and overcrowding. They also alleged that patients were subject to demeaning comments by staff members, and that patients had complained about being physically abused.

"The situation has deteriorated to the point that physicians are essentially being asked to practice medicine at below their own minimum ethical standards on a routine basis," Springer wrote in a report submitted to DPC's governing body in March 2000.

Two months later, Henry informed Springer that his contract would not be renewed.

In ruling in favor of Springer in 2004, a federal jury in Wilmington rejected defense arguments that Springer should have submitted a bid to be considered for another year as an independent contractor at the center. Under a law passed by the General Assembly in 1996, professional services contracts worth more than $50,000 are subject to public bidding, but Springer, who worked at DPC for nine years, was not asked to bid on a contract until 2000.

In their appeal, state attorneys argued that the lower court erred in holding that Springer's speech was protected under the First Amendment without determining whether any of the memorandum contained false statements.

Henry, who claimed that the memoranda contained at least two false statements, also reiterated her pretrial argument that she was entitled to qualified immunity.

The appeals court rejected Henry's immunity argument, saying "no reasonable official could have believed that the decision to target solely Dr. Springer could be based on any reason other than retaliation for protected speech."

Officials with the Department of Health and Social Services had no immediate comment on the 3rd Circuit ruling.

"I hope that this decision serves as an inspiration to those doctors who are so very often confronted by the choice of protecting their patients from abuse or selling out their medical ethics and principles to save their jobs," Springer said in a statement released by his attorney, Thomas Neuberger.

Springer, who is now in private practice, called upon members of the General Assembly to hold hearings on the mistreatment of patients at the DPC.

"Director Henry should also be removed from office for retaliating against a physician who was only speaking out for helpless mental patients who could not cry out for help themselves," he said.