Second Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Defamation/Breach of Contract Suit Against Epstein Becker Green Medical School Client

April 17, 2012

In a decision having significance for universities and medical schools, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the dismissal of a complaint for defamation, discrimination, and breach of contract brought by a medical doctor whose employment was terminated by Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. The plaintiff, a Chinese medical doctor who primarily engaged in cancer research, was accused by one of his subordinates of improperly manipulating research data. After a lengthy formal investigation conducted by a panel of his peers confirmed the allegations, the Dean discharged him, and the dismissal was upheld by a different peer review panel.

The doctor alleged that he was defamed by both the subordinate and the peers, but the court held that all statements made before or during the investigation were qualifiedly protected under the "common interest" privilege, and that the plaintiff had failed to sufficiently allege malice overcoming the privilege. Also, the court held that the plaintiff failed to offer sufficient proof that the dismissal was motivated by anti-Chinese animus, despite comments made about the plaintiff's Chinese medical school training, culture, and background.

Most important for academic institutions, the court reaffirmed the rule in New York that a professor cannot bring a breach of contract law suit arising from discipline, termination, or denial of tenure when such decisions involve peer review decisions under university policies, since such decisions involve weighing the institution's values as well as the individual's contractual rights. Such claims may be brought only by a mandamus-type proceeding where court review of the determination is based on an "arbitrary and capricious" standard.

The Epstein Becker Green team included Kenneth J. Kelly and Jennifer M. Horowitz of the New York office. Chao v. The Mount Sinai Hospital, et al., Index No. 11-1328-cv (2d Cir. 4/17/12).