For nearly 20 years, an Illinois physician suspended by the state's Department of Financial and Professional Regulation in 1999 has been appealing the ruling. The doctor, Robert Wilson, won several court victories over the years, only to see the board reinstate his nominally five-year suspension each time. But Wilson had some success again September 7, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned a lower court's decision that a federal suit he filed against the board was barred for not being timely.
(Wilson v. Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation).
In 1998, Wilson injected a drug intended to induce unconsciousness into a near-death patient suffering from considerable pain. However, after Wilson administered the drug, the patient’s heart stopped, a coroner classified the patient’s death as murder, and the state’s Department of Financial and Professional Regulation summarily suspended Wilson’s license.
Although the coroner eventually retracted that decision, and a prosecutor declined to bring criminal charges, after a disciplinary hearing, the Department suspended Wilson’s license for five years. Prior to this decision, Wilson appealed the decision in state court while simultaneously pursing a federal case he filed prior to the board’s decision. While the federal case was dismissed because Wilson had not perfected his administrative appeals, the state case continued.
Wilson met with partial success in his appeal. A state court vacated the suspension four separate times, only to have the department reinstate its original decision on remand each time. In 2008, after a state circuit court set aside the most recent decision to suspend Wilson, from 2006, the department again issued a five-year suspension.
At this point, Wilson’s license had been effectively suspended for 11 years, six years longer than the original suspension. Finally, in 2014, a state court held that the evidence in the case did not support suspension of Wilson’s license at all. The department did not appeal that order.
Unfortunately for Wilson, the department did still determine that, because he had not practiced medicine for 17 years, it could not reinstate his license until he completed a three-year medical education program.
Wilson filed a second federal suit, this time seeking damages, but his suit was first thrown out by a judge who determined he had filed too soon, as the administrative case had not yet ended, and then by another judge who determined that Wilson’s case was filed too late, after the end of the statute of limitations applicable to his case, which was ruled to have started tolling after the first federal case was dismissed.
But Wilson argued successfully that the federal court hearing his first federal suit, filed in 1999, held that he was prohibited from litigating his case in federal court while state proceedings were ongoing. Because those state proceedings did not end until 2014, that was the year his statute of limitations began to toll.
If Wilson had declined to appeal in state court, Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote, then the statute of limitations would have ended his chance to bring a federal suit in 2002. However, Wilson did appeal, and although “it took much longer than Wilson could have anticipated to vindicate his rights . . . the Department’s doggedness in reinstating his suspensions despite its multiple losses in state court does not supply a good reason to prevent [federal] litigation when at last it became possible.”
The lower court judgment invalidating Wilson’s suit was vacated, and the Court of Appeals returned the case for further proceedings.