Where defendant doctor was an employee of a governmental entity and plaintiffs failed to name the employer in their HCLA suit, dismissal under the Tennessee GTLA was affirmed. In Braylon W. v. Walker, No. W2020-00692-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 15, 2021), plaintiffs filed an HCLA suit against defendant doctor based on treatment surrounding the birth of minor plaintiff. The birth occurred at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, and pursuant to a Physician Employment Agreement, defendant was employed by West Tennessee Medical Group (WTMG) at the time of the birth. WTMG is a governmental entity under the definitions in the Governmental Tort Liability Act.
When plaintiffs filed their complaint, they named only the doctor as a defendant. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that “because she was an employee of WTMG, the GTLA require[d] that WTMG also be named a party to the lawsuit.” The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant based on the GTLA, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
While interpreting governmental immunity, the Tennessee Supreme Court has explained that the GTLA “provides that in order to maintain a medical malpractice action against a health care practitioner who is employed by a governmental entity, that entity must be named as a defendant.” (quoting Doyle v. Frost, 49 S.W.3d 853 (Tenn. 2001); see also Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b)). If the doctor in this case was an employee of WTMG, then, WTMG must have also been named as a defendant in order for plaintiffs to maintain the suit.
The GTLA defines government employees in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-107, citing certain elements that must exist in order for a person to be considered an employee. Two of those elements were at issue in this case: whether the doctor “receive[d] the same benefits as all other employees of the governmental entity in question…” and whether the doctor “act[ed] under the control and direction of the governmental entity not only as to the result to be accomplished but as to the means and details by which the result is accomplished.” (Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-107(a)(3) & (4)).
The Court first analyzed whether the doctor worked under the “control and direction” of WTMG. Plaintiff argued that WTMG “delegated medical management and administrative services to [the doctor],” and that the doctor’s employment agreement stated that she had “complete control over the diagnosis and treatment of patients assigned to [her] and the performance of professional medical services.” According to plaintiff, this was enough to show that defendant was not an employee of WTMG, but the Court disagreed. The Court pointed out that the language in the employment contract was required to be included by statute, and that under plaintiff’s interpretation “it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any physician to be employed by a governmental entity,” which would “clearly contravene the GTLA’s intent[.]” The Court noted that the GTLA does not require the employing entity to exert “complete control,” and it pointed out that “WTMG [did] in fact dictate several facets of Dr. Walker’s employment.” WTMG required defendant to agree to “certain duties and covenants,” controlled her schedule, and assigned her patients to see. Under these facts, the Court ruled that “WTMG exhibited sufficient control over Dr. Walker’s employment that she may be considered an employee” under the GTLA.
Next, the Court looked at whether defendant received the same benefits as other employees. Defendant’s employment agreement stated that “Paid Earned Time (PET) and PET sick time will be excluded from the benefit package and will not accrue,” and plaintiff argued that this showed defendant did not get the same benefits as other employees. The Court disagreed, noting that defendant still received personal and sick time, but that it was simply accrued in a different way. The Court stated:
[W]e interpret this requirement to denote that the benefits themselves must be the same, rather than the manner in which they accrue. …We are not concerned with the notion that Dr. Walker’s benefits may accrue or be available to her in a different manner than other employees, rather, the dispositive question is whether she is afforded the same benefits as the other employees. Moreover, we note that, based on the nature of Dr. Walker’s work as a physician, it would be essentially impossible for her to accrue her time off benefits in a similar manner as other employees who are non-physicians due to the fact of her irregular hours and requirement to be on call.
Because the elements of employment were met and plaintiffs did not name the doctor’s employer as a defendant, dismissal under the GTLA was affirmed.
NOTE: This opinion was released two months after oral arguments in this case.