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Did board members conspire against a dentist? A trial may decide

Photo by Partha S. Sahana

A district court was legally wrong when it granted summary judgment against a dentist who charged his license was revoked through misuse and manipulation of state dental board proceedings by other dentists, the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Second Circuit, ruled November 20, 2013.

Noting that there is a “plethora of disputed facts” in the case, the court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. “The unresolved issues preclude the grant of summary judgment,” the court said.

In the case (Haygood v. Dies), dentist Ryan Haygood alleged that another dentist, members of the state board, and investigators conspired to deprive him of his dental license by defamation, malicious prosecution, and unfair trade practices. A key statute on which the case hinges is LUTPA, the Louisiana Unfair Trade Practices Act, which creates a right of action for any person who suffers any ascertainable loss for a violation of the statute.

Haygood opened a practice in Bossier City in 2005, conducting an aggressive advertising campaign. When the Louisiana State Board of Dentistry opened an investigation into Haygood’s treatment of patients and dental plans, Haygood suspected that another dentist whom he regarded as his direct, primary competitor, Ross H. Dies, whose practice was one mile away, had conspired with board members to trump up complaints.

According to court records, the board sent two investigators to Haygood’s office, who posed as patients with false symptoms. Those investigators are included as defendants in the suit filed by Haygood.

After the dental board found Haygood had committed eight violations, it imposed maximum fines and costs totaling over $173,000, and Haygood relocated out of state, filing suit September 26, 2011 against Dies, the board, and the investigators.

According to Haygood’s complaint, the board’s actions were zealous and exceeded its authority including hiring unlicensed investigators to work as dental hygienists at his office, offering them immunity for testifying against him, and retaining Dies as an expert to evaluate complaints.

As the court notes, “the ensuing litigation has been complex.” But in brief, in 2012 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal overturned the decision to revoke Haygood’s license, citing gross due process violations by the board, including the board’s attorney having overstepped his bounds in the investigation.

Among the items of evidence in the complex case are cell phone records of calls by Dies to board members, emails from a broker to Dies allegedly regarding Dies’ potential purchase of Haygood’s practice, and a deposition by one of the investigators stating that Dies bragged to her that he was “in charge” of the investigation and “couldn’t be touched.” Dies has denied a competitive interest in stopping Haygood, denied the allegations that he ever attempted to buy Haygood’s practice, and asserted that Haygood could not prove the contents of Dies’ numerous phone calls to board members. Dies also contends that board proceedings cannot be construed as commerce and thus LUTPA does not apply.

In its November 20 decision, the Louisiana Court of Appeal said that the Fourth Circuit ruling—which suggests the potential of a corrupted investigation and a strong inference that other members of the board engaged in the conduct attributed to Dies—plus the large number of contested issues of fact in the case, make summary judgment “simply inappropriate.” If some of the allegations regarding Dies’ behavior are proved, the court added, they “would strongly suggest that Dr. Dies’s conduct was motivated less by altruistic concern for the public than animus to suppress a competitor. They would also prove that other board members agreed with Dr. Dies to engage in conduct to accomplish these objectives.”

The allegation “that a direct, primary competitor may have initiated a board investigation, served as an expert, and rendered spurious opinions that resulted in revocation of the competitor’s license,” remains to be resolved, the court said in reversing and remanding the case to the district court.