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Johnson v. Pope Emergency Group, LLC

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

November 20, 2019

Carroll "Don" JOHNSON, Appellant

Page 463


         Sutter & Gillham, P.L.L.C., by: Luther Oneal Sutter, Little Rock; and Baker & Schulze, Little Rock, by: J.G. "Gerry" Schulze, for appellant.

         Wright, Lindsey & Jennings LLP, Little Rock, by: Regina A. Young and Gary D. Marts, Jr., for appellee.


         RAYMOND R. ABRAMSON, Judge

          In 2014, Pope Emergency Group (Pope) had an arrangement with St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Russellville (St. Mary’s) whereby Pope agreed to supply physicians to staff the hospital’s emergency department. In February 2014, Pope entered into an agreement with the appellant, Dr. Carroll "Don" Johnson, to provide emergency room physician services as an independent contractor at St. Mary’s. On June 30, 2014, Dr. Johnson’s confrontation with a nurse led St. Mary’s to request that Pope remove Dr. Johnson from the staff of the emergency department, whereupon Pope terminated its contract with Dr. Johnson.

         Dr. Johnson filed a complaint in the Pope County Circuit Court alleging that Pope and its parent company, Schumacher Group of Arkansas (Schumacher), were liable for breach of contract and wrongful termination. Dr. Johnson also sued Russellville Holdings, LLC, which owns and does business as St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center.[1] Dr. Johnson alleged that the hospital tortiously interfered with his contract with Pope and Schumacher. Pope filed a counterclaim for breach of contract alleging that Dr. Johnson had failed to

Page 464

return a $30,000 signing bonus as required by the terms of their agreement.

         Pope, Schumacher, and St. Mary’s all filed motions for summary judgment, whereupon Dr. Johnson nonsuited all his claims against them.[2] Pope elected to continue pursuing its counterclaim, however, and the circuit court granted summary judgment in its favor in an order entered on February 2, 2017. Dr. Johnson now appeals the circuit court’s order. We affirm.

          I. Facts and Procedural History

          Dr. Johnson is a physician who specializes in emergency medicine. In late 2013, after years of working in Jonesboro, Dr. Johnson decided to return to St. Mary’s, where he had previously worked as an emergency room physician from 2000 until 2008. The prospect of Dr. Johnson’s return to St. Mary’s was initially met with some hesitation by the administration of St. Mary’s and officials at Pope and Schumacher because some patients and hospital staff had complained that Dr. Johnson was "rude," "arrogant," and "condescending" during his previous tenure in the emergency department.

          Nevertheless, on January 24, 2014, Dr. Johnson and Pope executed a "Physician Agreement" (Agreement) whereby Dr. Johnson agreed to provide physician services in the emergency department at St. Mary’s. The Agreement became effective on February 17, 2014, and it had a one-year term that would automatically renew every year that Dr. Johnson "worked at least one (1) clinical shift." The Agreement also provided, however, that Pope could terminate the contract "immediately" and "without written notice" for a number of reasons, including when "Hospital Administration requests the removal of [Dr. Johnson] or reports that [he] is being disruptive, unprofessional, or unreasonably uncooperative with the medical or administrative staff of [the] Hospital." Additionally, Dr. Johnson would have to return a $30,000 signing bonus if he failed to meet any of the terms and conditions of the Agreement, including his obligation to "maintain membership in good standing on the Medical Staff of [St. Mary’s] and abide by the bylaws, rules, and regulations of the Medical Staff[.]"

         Dr. Johnson began working at St. Mary’s on March 8, 2014. A couple of months later, Dr. McLane Simpson, the emergency room medical director for Pope and Schumacher, learned of two incidents in which Dr. Johnson and emergency room nurses had clashed over the use of nurse-initiated order sets, which authorized the nurses to order— in the attending physician’s name— certain medical tests and medications according to a patient’s particular complaint.[3] The order sets had not been in use during Dr. Johnson’s previous tenure at St. Mary’s, and he believed that they allowed nurses to engage in the unauthorized practice of medicine. Dr. Johnson also opined that the order sets resulted in

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fraud because many of the tests that the nurses ordered— and the hospital billed to the patients— were unnecessary. After discussing the issue with Dr. Johnson and hearing his objections, Dr. Simpson ordered the nursing staff to avoid using the ...

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