This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Jodi A. Martin, Ph.D., L.P.,
a wholly-owned subsidiary of
Filed April 27, 2004
Ramsey County District Court
File No. CX-02-5193
William J. Egan, William J. Egan, PLC, 150 Edina Executive Plaza, 5200 Willson Road, Edina, MN 55424 (for appellant)
Anne Johnson, HealthPartners, Legal Department, 8100 34th Avenue South, Box 1309, Bloomington, MN 55425 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Stoneburner, Presiding Judge, Hudson, Judge, and Crippen, Judge.
Appellant Jodi Martin sued respondent Regions Hospital, alleging violation of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act. This appeal challenges the trial court’s summary judgment for Regions. Appellant contends that the trial court erred by failing to determine that she had an objective basis in fact to refuse in good faith to follow a supervisor’s directive to violate a statutory requirement. We affirm.
Regions Hospital employed appellant as a clinical psychologist. HealthPartners, Inc., a health care coverage provider, is Regions’ parent corporation and has a third-party payer contractual affiliation with Regions. In 2000, HealthPartners decided to change its method of reimbursement for behavioral health service, adopting a “case rate” system that provides a flat rate for the entire course of a patient’s treatment instead of reimbursement for each unit of service. This new payment methodology concerned appellant because of her opinion that it had potential to create a financial incentive to offer less service to patients. Appellant asserted concern about both her legal and ethical obligations to discuss and disclose the new payment methodology with her patients. She discussed these concerns both with her direct supervisor and with other personnel at Regions.
Beginning in January 2001, appellant began discussing and disclosing the case rate reimbursement plan with her patients. Later that month, she spoke with her supervisor, Cathleen O’Leary, who told her not to discuss insurance with her patients. In February 2001, O’Leary informed Martin that her hours at the Regions campus would likely be reduced.
Dissatisfied with O’Leary’s directive not to discuss and disclose the reimbursement plan with her patients, appellant discussed the matter with other administrators, one of whom advised, as had O’Leary, that case rate reimbursement was not appellant’s responsibility. Two administrators investigated appellant’s assertion that O’Leary had retaliated by reducing appellant’s hours and determined that this step was taken for other reasons. After her hours were further reduced, appellant worked on a reduced schedule until September 2003, when she voluntarily terminated her position. This suit and the district court’s summary judgment then followed.
As a preliminary matter, appellant argues that because the trial court failed to evaluate the only issue that Regions raised for summary judgment—whether appellant had an objective basis in fact to believe that Regions’ directive not to discuss and disclose case rate information violated Minnesota statutes—this court must address that issue. But the trial court, in fact, reached a conclusion on this issue. In the memorandum accompanying its summary judgment order, the court found “that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to the objective basis in fact of the Plaintiff.” The court then discussed Minn. Stat. § 62J.72, subd. 4 (2002), and concluded that the responsibility to disclose the reimbursement plan did not rest with appellant.
On appeal from a summary judgment, we review the record to determine whether there are any genuine issues of material fact or the district court erred in its application of the law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990). A genuine issue of material fact exists when the nonmoving party presents evidence that creates doubt about a factual issue that is both probative to an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case and that would permit a reasonable person to draw a different conclusion. DLH, Inc. v. Russ, 566 N.W.2d 60, 71 (Minn. 1997). This court reviews “the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was granted.” Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993).
In order for Martin to prevail in her whistleblower lawsuit, she must meet the requirements of Minn. Stat. § 181.932, subd. 1(c) (2002), which prohibits an employer’s adverse conduct toward an employee who refuses an employer’s order to perform “action that the employee has an objective basis in fact to believe” violates laws or rules.
Appellant claims that the district court erred because the evidence she presented created a genuine issue of material fact as to her objective basis to believe that following her supervisor’s directive would violate the statutory disclosure requirements of Minn. Stat. § 62J.72, the Minnesota Patient Protection Act (the Act). There is no merit in this assertion.
Appellant did not provide the district court and does not provide this court with any evidence of her objective basis in fact to believe that Regions was asking her to violate the law. Her refusal to accept the directive of her supervisor occurred in January 2001. She based this refusal on her conclusion that her own personal failure to disclose the case rate reimbursement plan with her patients would violate the patient protection statutes, as well as her ethical standards. But there is no evidence that appellant saw, knew, or deliberated on subdivision 4 of the Act, a provision that could have relieved her from liability under the Act. See Minn. Stat. § 62J.72, subd. 4 (stating that the Act is not applicable to health care providers if the disclosures have “been provided by another individual or entity that is subject to this section.”). There is no evidence that appellant knew or inquired as to whether HealthPartners was making disclosures required by the statute in 2001—a condition that would have relieved appellant of her responsibility to disclose. See id. And there is no evidence that appellant inquired of any state regulatory agency to see if agency disclosures had occurred.
In addition, appellant’s own testimony belies her argument that she had reason to believe she was being asked to violate the Act in January 2001. From her deposition testimony, it is clear that appellant was concerned about disclosure of the forthcoming case rate reimbursement plan that was first announced at a Regions’ staff meeting in August 2000. Her concern stemmed from her opinion that the case rate plan offered incentive to provide less service, a personal opinion founded on the historic pressure on hospital management to reduce services thought to be unnecessary. But this opinion does not amount to a reasonable belief that disclosure by her was required by law. The courts need not question the depth of appellant’s concern for her patients; she attested that she made every effort so that the case rate system would not affect the care she gave and it never did affect that care. But appellant herself acknowledged that it was only during the discovery period for this litigation, in 2003, that she became aware that HealthPartners had been disclosing the case rate system to its patients through member handbooks during open enrollment periods beginning in 2001.
We also note that, although appellant’s complaint asserts a single refusal to comply with her employer’s request, it is evident that her refusal was ongoing. Although the state of appellant’s knowledge and understanding of her duty to disclose under the Act might be expected to change during the course of the period in question, there is no evidence that she gained more knowledge about either the statute or about HealthPartner’s disclosure under the statute. Although she continued discussions with Regions about its disclosure, she apparently did not do the same regarding HealthPartner’s compliance with the statute.
The record establishes, free of any genuine issue of fact, that appellant’s belief she was violating the Act was based on her personel opinion about the need for her comment on case rate reimbursements, not on an objective basis in fact to believe her disclosure was required by law. Appellant’s claim does not satisify the requirements of Minn. Stat. § 181.932, subd. 1(c), as a matter of law.
Because we find support for the trial court’s conclusion that appellant did not have an objective basis in fact to believe that she had a duty to disclose, we need not explore the additional questions raised by appellant below: namely (1) whether HealthPartners’ and Regions’ disclosures actually satisfied the requirements of the Act, eliminating appellant’s disclosure requirement, and (2) whether the adequacy of disclosure was properly established by the Minnesota Health Department. Further, because the trial court correctly concluded that Regions was entitled to summary judgment for the reason stated in this opinion, appellant was not prejudiced by the trial court’s sua sponte grant of summary judgment on the merits of her claim of retaliation. See Doe v. Brainerd Int’l Raceway, Inc., 514 N.W.2d 811, 822 (Minn. App. 1994) (stating that unless the objecting party shows prejudice from lack of notice or other procedural irregularities, or the party is not afforded meaningful opportunity to oppose summary judgment, the court’s judicious exercise of its inherent power to grant summary judgment in appropriate cases should not be disturbed), rev’d on other grounds, 533 N.W.2d 617 (Minn. 1995).
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.