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Stafford v. Attending Staff Association of Lac USC Medical Center

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Second Division

October 30, 2019

NOVARRO C. STAFFORD, Plaintiff and Respondent,

          APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. No. BS160519, Mary H. Strobel, Judge.

          John D. Harwell for Defendant and Appellant.

          Steven Trolard for Plaintiff and Respondent.

          LUI, P.J.

         The Attending Staff Association of LAC USC Medical Center (Association) appeals from a judgment granting a writ of mandamus against it. Respondent Novarro C. Stafford is a physician whose clinical privileges were terminated by the Association. Stafford requested an administrative hearing. The administrative process began, but the Association subsequently took the position that Stafford withdrew or abandoned his right to an administrative hearing through his communications and conduct and by filing an unsuccessful action in superior court.

         Stafford filed a petition for a writ of mandate seeking an order directing the Association to complete Stafford's administrative proceeding. The trial court granted the petition. We affirm.

         The Association argues that, because Stafford filed an action in superior court before concluding the administrative appeal process, he forfeited his administrative remedy as a matter of law. The argument misinterprets the doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies. That doctrine precludes premature lawsuits; it does not mean that filing a premature lawsuit necessarily waives an administrative remedy.

         The Association also makes the factual argument that Stafford withdrew his request for an administrative hearing. The trial court found against the Association on that claim. That finding is supported by substantial evidence, and we therefore must affirm.


         1. The Suspension of Stafford's Clinical Privileges

         Stafford is an anesthesiologist who was employed by the County of Los Angeles (County), working at the LAC USC Medical Center (Medical Center). At the time of the relevant events Stafford was over 80 years old and had enjoyed staff privileges at the Medical Center for over 30 years. The Association is responsible for providing such privileges.

         On September 16, 2013, a female patient filed a written complaint claiming that Stafford had acted inappropriately and made her feel uncomfortable during an examination. On February 7, 2014, the Director of Health Services of Los Angeles County informed Stafford by letter that his clinical privileges had been summarily suspended “[i]n accord with the bylaws of the... Association.” The stated reason was “to reduce the substantial likelihood of imminent impairment to patient health and safety.” Stafford received a “referral to the Well-Being Committee and requirement of a neurocognitive examination, to be completed no later than sixty days and coordinated through the Well-Being Committee.”

         The Association subsequently terminated Stafford's privileges on the ground that he failed to submit a timely neurocognitive evaluation.[1] Stafford appealed the decision and requested an administrative hearing.

         2. Initiation of the Administrative Proceedings

         In September 2014, James Lahana was appointed as hearing officer for the administrative hearing. Counsel for Stafford and for the Association corresponded concerning voir dire of Lahana and various discovery issues.

         In November 2014, Stafford requested retirement from the County.

         Also in November 2014, new counsel for Stafford, Steven Trolard, wrote to the Association advising it that Stafford intended to file a civil suit. Trolard claimed that the Association's failure to schedule a prompt hearing was a breach of its bylaws, permitting recourse to the court.

         Trolard participated in voir dire, but subject to an objection “to the subject matter jurisdiction of the peer review procedure itself.” Trolard's e-mail explaining his objection stated, “I do not see any requirement that Dr. Stafford subject himself to the peer review process before a civil suit can be filed since Dr. Stafford has taken retirement.”

         On March 26, 2015, Trolard sent several e-mails to the Association's counsel, John Harwell. Trolard's first e-mail requested an appointment to see Stafford's employment file, proposing a date of April 7, 2015, for the inspection. A follow-up e-mail changed the proposed date to April 15, 2015. In the follow-up e-mail, Trolard also stated, “In our last meeting you said you would be dismissing ...

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