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Hutchison v. United States

United States District Court, D. Kansas

May 23, 2017



          CARLOS MURGUIA, United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs John and Sarah Hutchison (“J.H.” and “S.H., ” respectively) bring this case against defendants United States of America, Robert McDonald (Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs), and Mark Wisner, pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671 and 38 U.S.C. § 7316(a), (f), alleging that Wisner conducted improper and/or unnecessary physical examinations of J.H. and elicited unnecessary private information. Plaintiffs claim that the court has supplemental jurisdiction over their state claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). This matter is before the court on defendants United States of America and McDonald's Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. 11.) Defendants argue that plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint (Doc. 10) should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and because it fails to state a claim under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6). For the reasons set forth below, the court grants defendants' motion in part and denies it in part. Plaintiffs do not oppose defendants' request to dismiss defendant McDonald (Doc. 19, at 1 n.1) and plaintiffs' claims against him are dismissed.

         I. Factual Background

         J.H. is a veteran who sought treatment at the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center (“VA”) located in Leavenworth, Kansas. S.H. is J.H.'s wife. Wisner treated and provided medical care for J.H. between 2011 and 2014. Wisner was a physician's assistant (“PA”) with the VA, but represented himself to the public as a medical doctor.

         In Count I, plaintiffs claim that Wisner practiced and prescribed medicine, including the performance of physical examinations, under the close supervision of a VA physician. Plaintiffs allege that Wisner was negligent when he violated the standard of care by attempting to conduct an unnecessary examination of J.H.'s prostate and conducting improper and/or unnecessary examinations of J.H.'s genitals without gloves during appointments. They claim that Wisner failed to recognize his own impairment and refer J.H. to another practitioner. Plaintiffs further allege that Wisner used his position to elicit unnecessary private information J.H. and was negligent when he prescribed medication to J.H. that was unnecessary or in improper dosages. And plaintiffs claim that Wisner's negligent acts occurred during business hours at the VA hospital and were reasonably incidental to his employment-making defendant vicariously liable for his acts.

         Plaintiffs state that Wisner admitted to failing to meet the standard of care by making inappropriate sexual comments to his patients, overprescribing medication, and performing unnecessary testicular and genital exams and other unnecessary contact of his patients for no legitimate medical purpose.

         Plaintiffs bring claims of negligent supervision, retention, and hiring against defendant in Count II. Plaintiffs allege that defendant-via the VA-violated its duty to exercise reasonable care when it employed, supervised, and retained Wisner. They state that defendant knew or should have known that Wisner was unable to provide competent medical care to plaintiffs and that Wisner victimized and was dangerous to other patients. Plaintiffs also claim that defendant possessed reason to believe that employment of Wisner would result in undue risk of harm to plaintiffs and other patients.

         Plaintiffs claim that Wisner was arrested on June 25, 1987, in San Bernardino, California for “Disorderly Conduct: Solicit Lewd Act” and this information was available through the National Crime Information Center. Plaintiffs allege that Wisner was accused of sexual assault in 2012 while employed at the VA. Plaintiffs list other incidents where Wisner was reported for misconduct and misprescription of medications. Plaintiffs allege that defendant knew or should have known that Wisner was unable to provide competent medical care to J.H. Plaintiffs also claim that defendant failed to monitor Wisner's clinical activities to ensure that they were within the authorized scope of practice and medically appropriate as required by VHA Directive 1063 and/or the Physician Assistant Licensure Act (“PALA”), K.S.A. § 65-2801, et seq. Plaintiffs allege that VA supervisors failed to perform actions required by VHA Handbook 1100.19; VHA Directive 2012-030, and all preceding regulations; and VHA Directive 2004-029.

         Plaintiffs also bring claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress, outrage, battery, and invasion of privacy - intrusion upon seclusion against all defendants. S.H. brings a consortium claim and alleges that as a result of J.H.'s injuries, she has lost the society, conjugal fellowship, love, affection, consortium, and companionship of her husband.[1]

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         Dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) is appropriate when the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a claim. Plaintiff claims that subject matter jurisdiction exists and has the burden of establishing it. Port City Props. v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 518 F.3d 1186, 1189 (10th Cir. 2008). Because federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, there is a strong presumption against federal jurisdiction. Sobel v. United States, 571 F.Supp.2d 1222, 1226 (D. Kan. 2008).

         Motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction generally take one of two forms: (1) a facial attack on the sufficiency of the complaint's jurisdictional allegations; or (2) a challenge to the actual facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction is based. Holt v. United States, 46 F.3d 1000, 1002-03 (10th Cir. 1995). For a facial challenge, the court accepts the plaintiff's factual allegations regarding jurisdiction as true. Id. at 1002. But for a factual attack, the court does not presume that the plaintiff's allegations are true. Id. at 1003. Rather, “[a] court has wide discretion to allow affidavits, other documents, and a limited evidentiary hearing to resolve disputed jurisdictional facts under Rule 12(b)(1). In such instances, a court's reference to evidence outside the pleadings does not convert the motion to a Rule 56 motion.” Id.

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         To the extent this court has subject matter jurisdiction, the court must determine whether plaintiffs' action is subject to dismissal because it fails to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The court grants a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) only when the factual allegations fail to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Although the factual allegations need not be detailed, the claims must set forth entitlement to relief “through more than labels, conclusions and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” In re Motor Fuel Temperature Sales Practices Litig., 534 F.Supp.2d 1214, 1216 (D. Kan. 2008). The allegations must contain facts sufficient to state a claim that is plausible-not merely conceivable. Id. “All well-pleaded facts, as distinguished from conclusory allegations, must be taken as true.” Swanson v. Bixler, 750 F.2d 810, 813 (10th Cir. 1984); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 681 (2009). The court construes any reasonable inferences from these facts in favor of the plaintiff. Tal v. Hogan, 453 F.3d 1244, 1252 (10th Cir. 2006).

         III. Discussion

         Under the FTCA, the United States has waived its sovereign immunity for injuries caused by the “negligent or wrongful act or omission” of a federal government employee while that employee is “acting within the scope of his office or employment, under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). An action under the FTCA is the exclusive remedy for a plaintiff claiming personal injuries arising out of the negligent conduct of a federal employee, 28 U.S.C. § 2679(b)(1), and federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over such actions, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1).

         A. Count I

         1. Scope of Employment

         Defendant characterizes Wisner's conduct as “sexual misconduct.” Applying this characterization, defendant argues that the court lacks jurisdiction because Wisner's conduct was not within the scope of his employment. Sexual battery and/or inappropriate touching and sexual comments are not within the duties that a PA is hired to perform, defendant argues, and did not further the VA's business.

         Under the FTCA, the United States is liable only for tortious acts committed by employees “acting within the scope of [their] office or employment.” 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). “Scope of employment” is determined by the law of the place where the accident occurred. Fowler v. United States, 647 F.3d 1232, 1237 (10th Cir. 2011); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). In Kansas, an employee acts within the scope of his employment when (1) he performs services for which he has been employed, or (2) he does anything reasonably incidental to his employment. O'Shea v. Welch, 350 F.3d 1101, 1103 (10th Cir. 2003) (citing Pattern Instructions Kansas 3d 107.06; Williams v. Cmty. Drive-In Theater, Inc., 520 P.2d 1296, 1301-02 (Kan. 1974)). The test is not whether the employer expressly authorized or forbid the conduct. Id. Instead, the court asks whether the employer should have fairly foreseen the conduct from the nature of the employment and the duties relating to it. Id.; see also Commerce Bank of St. Joseph, N.A. v. State, 833 P.2d 996, 999 (Kan. 1992).

         Plaintiffs claim that scope of employment is a factual determination. Generally, this is correct, but the court may resolve this question as a matter of law when only one reasonable conclusion can be drawn from the evidence. See Wayman v. Accor N. Am., Inc., 251 P.3d 640, 646 (Kan.Ct.App. 2011) (citing O'Shea, 350 F.3d 1101).

         a. Slight Deviation Analysis

         Plaintiffs claim that Wisner's conduct was within the scope of his employment because it was a “slight deviation” from his duties. In O'Shea v. Welch, the Tenth Circuit reviewed the Kansas jury instruction on scope of employment, and determined that it is compatible with the slight deviation analysis. O'Shea, 350 F.3d at 1106. “Application of the slight deviation analysis allows for more flexibility and accuracy in the application of the law to each fact scenario. The Kansas pattern jury instruction[] . . . does not express a bright-line rule but instead illustrates a type of slight deviation rule which requires a determination of what is reasonably incidental to employment and what conduct should have been fairly foreseen.” Id.

         Under the slight deviation analysis, an employee could pursue dual purpose ventures without the conduct amounting to an entire departure from the scope of employment. Id. at 1107. “An employee does not cease to be acting within the course of his employment because of an incidental personal act, or by slight deflections for a personal or private purpose, if his main purpose is still to carry on the business of his employer. Such deviations which do not amount to a turning aside completely from the employer's business, so as to be inconsistent with its pursuit, are often reasonably expected and the employer's assent may be fairly assumed.” Id.

         The court reviews the following factors to determine whether an employee has engaged in a slight or substantial deviation: (1) the employee's intent; (2) the nature, time, and place of the deviation; (3) the time consumed in the deviation; (4) the work for which the employee was hired; (5) the incidental acts reasonably expected by the employer; and (6) the freedom allowed the employee in performing his job responsibilities. Id. at 1108 (citing Felix v. Asai, 192 Cal.App.3d 926, 237 Cal.Rptr. 718, 722 (1987)).

         b. Wisner's Conduct

         Plaintiffs claim that Wisner's tortious conduct was not far removed in time, distance, or purpose from his normal duties and thus, incidental to his employment at the VA. J.H. alleges that he was Wisner's patient from 2011 to 2014. During his appointments, plaintiffs allege that Wisner would lock the door, ask J.H. about sex, and perform physical examinations without gloves. J.H. states that he never saw Wisner wash his hands. During these examinations, J.H. claims that Wisner placed one hand on his inner thigh and used the other hand to massage J.H.'s testicles and penis. According to plaintiffs, Wisner sometimes claimed that he was checking for “lumps of cancer” and make statements like “things are looking good down there.” At one appointment, Wisner performed a “breast exam” on J.H., claiming that he was looking for cancer lumps. Wisner would sometimes rub J.H.'s rectum and claim that he was checking for hemorrhoids due to irritable bowel syndrome. Plaintiffs further allege that Wisner asked inappropriate questions about J.H.'s sex life, including whether S.H. was satisfied with his sexual abilities, pubic hair trimming, how long he could “keep it up, ” if he could “finish, ” and the frequency he had sex. According to plaintiffs, Wisner would frequently tell J.H. “I am your battle buddy you can trust me, I was a medic in combat and you trusted them when you were in combat and needed medics and you can trust me.” (Doc. 10, at 6.)

         Plaintiffs reference several of Wisner's admissions in his complaint. Wisner admitted to making inappropriate sexual comments to his patients. Wisner also admitted that he performed unnecessary testicular and genital examinations and unnecessary contact of his patients for no legitimate medical purpose.

         Plaintiffs argue that while Wisner's acts were improper, they were still in line with his duties he was hired to perform as a PA. At this stage, plaintiffs have presented a plausible negligence claim that is supported by facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint. Arguably, Wisner was furthering the VA's interests in treating and examining J.H., even though it may have been done in excess and included inappropriate comments. Some of Wisner's duties included prescribing medication and performing physical examinations on patients. There is no dispute that misprescription of medication and performing improper or excessive examinations without gloves-to the extent that Wisner gained personal satisfaction from these examinations-was a deviation from his duties. But it is plausible that this deviation was not an entire departure from the scope of Wisner's employment and was within the parameters of the duties he was hired to perform. At this time, the court cannot resolve this question as a matter of law. Any improper examinations occurred during appointments when J.H. sought medical treatment from the VA. And plaintiffs do not allege that examinations occurred after business hours or outside of the VA's building.

         Moreover, full physical examinations (including examination of the VA patients' genitalia) are not necessarily unexpected. The failure to wear gloves and/or an excessive number of examinations might be improper, but this conduct in general is not unforeseeable or unexpected of a PA hired to treat VA patents. Likewise, obtaining personal information from a patient for diagnosis and treatment is expected and often necessary for effective treatment. ...

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