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Court may not force board to enforce subpoenas in action between private parties

On August 20, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed a lower court which had ordered the state's medical board and Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs to enforce a subpoena for medical records.

Credit: Ruhrfisch, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9661701

(In re: Petition for Enforcement of Subpoenas Issued by Hearing Examiner in a Proceeding Before the Board of Medicine)

The court found that, because the proper subjects of the petition were the private medical providers holding the records, and not the state, the court had no power to hear the petition.

After a psychiatrist submitted a complaint against Sarah DeMichele alleging deficient care of a mutual patient, the medical board initiated disciplinary action.

During preparation for her disciplinary hearing, DeMichele requested that the hearing examiner for the case issue subpoenas for the patient’s statements and medical records from several other medical providers. However, the patient refused consent to the release of those records, and the providers refused the subpoena.

In response, DeMichele filed a petition against the board and the state’s Bureau of Professional and Occupation Affairs with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, asking the court to order those agencies to enforce the subpoenas.

The Court granted that petition, and the patient, who had filed to intervene in the case, appealed and the case went up to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which reversed the lower court’s decision.

Before the Commonwealth Court and on appeal to the Supreme Court, the patient argued that the lower court did not properly have jurisdiction of the case, as Pennsylvania law requires that, for a state court to exercise jurisdiction in a case like this, the state must be an “indispensable party.”

DeMichele had not filed for relief against the state, the patient argued, but against the private parties holding the patient’s medical records, and thus the state entities were not properly the subjects of the suit.

The justices of the Supreme Court agreed with the patient, holding that the lower court improperly assumed jurisdiction of DeMichele’s petition to enforce the subpoenas where no basis for jurisdiction of the petition existed.

First, wrote Justice David Wecht for the majority, the lower court did not have appellate jurisdiction of the case because the hearing examiner in the administrative proceeding had not yet filed a final order that DeMichele could have appealed.

Second, and in response to the patient’s argument, the lower court could not have original jurisdiction of the case because the state was not a necessary party to DeMichele’s claims.

“In short,” wrote Justice Wecht, “this was an action neither by nor against the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth was not an indispensable party, and the [Medical Practice Act] provides no authorization for private parties to bring subpoena enforcement action in the Commonwealth Court.”

The Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs had responded to DeMichele’s court petition, a fact that the lower court noted in deciding that the state was an indispensable party to the case. But Justice Wecht pointed out that “the Bureau did not assert its own rights, but, rather, questioned the validity of the subpoenas absent a court order or [the patient’s] consent to the release of her records . . . That is, the Bureau argued on behalf of [the patient’s] rights and interests, not its own.”

“Although the Commonwealth may have a generalized interest in issues surrounding the enforcement of subpoenas and the protection of privileged material, the Commonwealth’s interests are not essential to a determination of the subpoenas’ validity and enforceability,” he continued.

“As such, the Commonwealth’s interests in this matter are too attenuated to warrant a finding that either the Board or the Bureau is indispensable to this action between private parties.”