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April 11, 2017

COA holds Michigan Board of Chiropractic has absolute immunity as a quasi-judicial actor

The Disciplinary Subcommittee of the Michigan Board of Chiropractic was entitled to absolute immunity as a quasi-judicial actor, held the Court of Appeals in Bruce D. Serven v. Health Quest Chiropractic, Inc, Case No.  Therefore, the trial court should have granted the Subcommittee members’ motion for summary disposition.

State Farm Insurance Company retained Bruce Serven, a licensed chiropractor, to perform an independent chiropractic examination on an individual who was involved in a motor vehicle accident. Serven opined that the individual’s condition was “normal,” negating the need for any further chiropractic services. Serven further advised State Farm that Health Quest’s services provided to date were not “medically necessary for the injuries sustained in this accident.” Based in part on this advice, State Farm denied payment for additional treatment to this individual.
 
Health Quest filed a complaint against Serven with the Michigan Board of Chiropractic.  Solomon Cogan, chairman of the Michigan Board of Chiropractic, was also an equity partner in Health Quest and bore a financial interest in the outcome of Serven’s disciplinary matter. An administrative law judge ruled in Serven’s favor; however, the Disciplinary Subcommittee did not adopt the AJL’s proposal. Although Cogan was not a member of the disciplinary subcommittee, he appeared at the subject meeting and participated in off-the-record discussions. Following the meeting and discussions, the Disciplinary Committee placed Serven on probation.  Serven appealed that decision, and this Court reversed and remanded with instructions to expunge Serven’s record.
 
Following conclusion of the disciplinary action and subsequent appeal, Serven filed the current lawsuit against board members Cogan, Klapp, and Wilcox in their individual capacities, alleging that the board members acted with self-interest and improperly penalized him among other claims. The circuit court denied the defendant board members’ motion for summary disposition based on immunity because they claimed to be quasi-judicial actors.
 
The COA reversed and remanded.  It held that the board members were entitled to absolute immunity as quasi-judicial actors.  Accordingly, the circuit court should have dismissed Serven’s complaint. In reaching this decision, the COA noted that quasi-judicial immunity is frequently extended to a medical-licensing board charged with hearing license suspension and revocation matters. The COA also noted that cloaking the disciplinary subcommittee with absolute quasi-judicial immunity also serves public policy. Board members can act independently and without fear of repercussion for taking disciplinary action against an individual in the regulated field. Ultimately, insulating board members protects the members and the judicial system from private lawsuits by those disgruntled by disciplinary action.

While the COA acknowledged that safeguards against biased individuals deciding a disciplinary matter did not function properly in this case, it held the failure of the protective measures does not warrant a private lawsuit against the Board members.  Absolute immunity does not fall away even when a judicial or quasi-judicial official acts in a malicious or corrupt manner.

The COA noted that the board members were not completely immune from any reproach as there are internal governmental mechanisms for handling their alleged misconduct.  Serven could have filed a complaint with the State Board of Ethics.  Serven thus was not without the means to bring public attention to defendants’ alleged wrongdoing.
 

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