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Recent Case Law May Change the Relationship Between Hospitals and Physicians Forever!

No, this is not a Shakespearean blog post. The Hamlet in this case is not the Prince of Denmark; it is a hospital system who hired a doctor, Dr. Hernandez as an independent contractor and whose private practice flopped. When the hospital at which he had privileges refused to hire him as an employee, Hernandez sued Hamlet under the False Claims Act (FCA) and Unfair Trade Practices- AND WON!!

Relationships between hospitals and physicians may forever be changed.

In an October 2018 decision, Hamlet H.M.A., LLC V. Hernandez, the NC Court of Appeals ruled that a hospital can be liable to a physician for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) – causing a new level of care to be needed in negotiations between hospitals and physicians.

Dr. Hernandez accepted a position with Sandhills Regional Medical Center. The original offer was for Dr. Hernandez to set up his own independent practice and to be an independent contractor for the hospital. The offer guaranteed a minimum collection amount for the first 18 months of the 36-month contract. The base salary was $325,000, with a bonus based on worked RVUs. Dr. Hernandez countered and asked to be considered as an employee instead of as an independent contractor. Sandhills sent an email offering a base salary of $275,000 as an employee. As any reasonable, logical person would do, Dr. Hernandez responded with an email stating that it would be irrational to accept a base salary so much lower in order to obtain employee status. The hospital offered an “employee status option” at the end of 18 months.

Dr. Hernandez then sent Sandhills an email asking to extend the time period of guaranteed income to 24 months, rather than 18 months. Plaintiff replied that it could not extend the period of guaranteed income, but raised the monthly salary from $47,616.82 to $49,500.00 and also added a signing bonus of $30,000.00. After further negotiations, the parties entered into a Physician Recruitment Agreement on March 9, 2011.

Dr. Hernandez’s private practice flopped, and at the end of the first 18-month period, he requested to exercise the employment option in his contract and to become an employee of Sandhills. But Sandhills did not give Dr. Hernandez an employment contract.

On August 29, 2014, Sandhills filed a complaint against Dr. Hernandez alleging breach of contract and demanding repayment of the entire amount paid to Dr. Hernandez, a total of 21 payments amounting to $902,259.66. Dr. Hernandez filed an answer with counterclaims for breach of contract, fraud, unfair or deceptive trade practices, and unjust enrichment. A jury trial was held in Superior Court in Richmond County at the end of August and the beginning of September 2016. The jury returned a verdict for Sandhills for $334,341.14 (a random number).

Dr. Hernandez countered sued the hospital for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices (UDTP) alleging that the hospital fraudulently induced him to enter into the contract with the hospital as an independent contractor. His allegations that the hospital violated UDTP because the hospital offered a lower salary to be considered an employee was shocking and unprecedented. Most likely, Sandhills never even contemplated that it could be held liable under UDTP because of a disparity in salary offered to Dr. Hernandez depending on his employment status. Most likely, the man or woman who sent the email to Dr. Hernandez with the disparate salaries never asked its general counsel whether the action could penalize the hospital. Who would have thought to?

One exception to UDTP is the “learned profession” exception. Basically, the courts have held that if the two parties to an agreement are learned professionals and the topic of the contract has to do with the parties’ speciality; i.e, medicine, in this case, then the parties cannot allege UDTP because both parties were knowledgeable. The issue of first impression presented by Hamlet is whether the “learned profession” exception set forth in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 75-1.1(b) applies to a dispute between a physician and a hospital relating to alleged false claims made by the hospital to induce the physician to enter into an employment contract. If the learned profession exception were to apply, then Dr. Hernandez’s UDTP claim against Sandhill would be dismissed.

Dr. Hernandez alleged that the hospital made false representations to induce him to enter into a contract. The Court held that the fact that he is a physician does not change the nature of the negotiation of a business contract. The Court found that the “learned profession” exception does not apply to any negotiation just because the two parties are physicians. For example, if a physician and a hospital were to contract to buy a beach house, then the exception would not apply because the nature of the contract (were something go awry and cause an UDTP lawsuit) because buying a beach house has nothing to do with being a physician or hospital. Similarly, here, the Court held that an employment contract had nothing to do with rendering medicine. Therefore, the exception did not apply. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s directed verdict against Dr. Hernandez.

This decision definitely creates more tension between hospitals and physicians. Now, in negotiations with employees and independent contractors, hospitals need to be mindful that UDTP claims can be alleged against them. This case is recent precedent for an unfamiliar modern world of health care negotiations.