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Anti-vaccine doctor cannot turn to federal courts based on state board’s alleged bad faith

Credit: NIH

Credit: NIH

A U.S. District Court in Minnesota held February 24 that it did not have authority to hear a physician’s challenge to his ongoing disciplinary proceedings because there was an ongoing state proceeding, rejecting the physician’s argument that normal rules preventing federal courts from intervening in such should not apply because the licensing board in the case was acting in bad faith.

Zajac v. Statton

The Minnesota Board of Medical Practice opened an investigation into physician Robert Zajac after receiving two complaints in 2018 that he was telling patients that vaccines are unsafe and encouraging them to forego routine vaccinations. After the board opened disciplinary proceedings, Zajac filed suit against the board in federal court, claiming the board was acting in bad faith to violate his constitutional rights to free speech.

In response to Zajac’s suit, the board claimed that the U.S. Supreme Court Younger abstention, a doctrine named after the case from which it is drawn, prevents federal courts from adjudicating issues that are subject to ongoing state proceedings.

The court agreed that the doctrine would apply to Zajac’s suit, but undertook an evaluation on the grounds that an exception existed for bad faith actions.

Zajac did argue that the board was acting in bad faith, claiming that the board had no real expectation of winning its disciplinary case against him and that it brought the proceedings to stifle his rights to free speech.

The court did not agree. Although Zajac argued that the standard of care to which the board compared him for disciplinary purposes would require him to violate state law by failing to inform his patients of the risks he believes vaccines pose, Judge John Tunheim rejected the argument.

Without fully analyzing the laws in question, Judge Tunheim held that the board defendants’ construction of the statute was a permissible one, meaning that they were not acting in bad faith.

Regarding Zajac’s rights to free speech, Judge Tunheim noted that the board focused only on Tunheim’s statements to his patients in his practice of medicine, not on public statements he had made regarding vaccines.

The board’s attempt to force Zajac to bring his interactions with his patients in line with the accepted standard of care was not a potential violation of his rights to free speech, and thus was also not conducted in bad faith, the court held.