Opinion

Class action will make radiologist’s lawsuit more complex – Stanley Peele

Stanley Peele
Stanley Peele

In 2015, Dr. Danielle Seaman, a radiologist, filed a lawsuit against Duke University. She alleged that there is an agreement that Duke will not hire or attempt to hire medical faculty employed by UNC, and vice-versa.

This is a complex lawsuit. On Feb. 1, 2018, the complexity was magnified 5,000 times. U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles allowed the action to become a class-action case. Thus, 5,600 members of the Duke and UNC medical faculty now may become members of this lawsuit.

What in the world?!

Dr. Seaman feels her salary has been depressed by an agreement by Duke and UNC not to hire faculty from each other.

First, it is difficult to sympathize with her contention, considering the high salaries that are paid at Duke University Medical Center.

Second, even if there was an agreement, it does not necessarily mean that her salary was any less than it would have been without the agreement.

Third, there is no written agreement to that effect by Duke and UNC. In fact, the written correspondence can support the possibility that there was no such agreement. Seaman is, in effect, claiming that there was an unwritten practice in effect.

Fourth, Seaman is asking for triple damages. Therefore, she not only wants compensation for alleged lost wages, she also wants to punish Duke.

Class-action history

The history of class actions is interesting. Group actions originated in England, were viewed with skepticism and eventually fell into disuse.

In the U.S., a 1966 change in federal law gave birth to the modern class action. In fact, it spread like wildfire. Class actions have had a profound impact on our society and have been of considerable help to those who were suffering massive harm.

Two of the most important class action cases were:

▪ Brown v. Board of Education was an action by Oliver Brown, who was prevented from enrolling his child in a white school. The case had an enormous effect on schools and our educational system.

▪ Johnson v. Eveleth Taconite, 1988, was the first sexual harassment class action in the U.S. It changed the laws protecting workers from sexual harassment, and ameliorated unfairness in the workplace. Many other sexual harassment cases followed.

The key to important class actions is that the plaintiffs are representing thousands of people who are in real need – and who cannot get relief unless a class action is filed.

That is not the case here. Seaman believes that her potential salary was reduced by the practice of Duke and UNC. There is considerable doubt that a great number of Duke and UNC faculty will agree.

Put yourself in the shoes of a Duke medical professor. He is sitting at home, minding his own business, quietly reading the newspaper. He discovers that he may be a member of a lawsuit against Duke and UNC. This is true even though he did not ask that it be done. Now he faced with an unsettling problem: Does he opt into the lawsuit in case there is a monetary award?

Many people avoid lawsuits like the plague. Some professors will feel a loyalty to their university and prefer not to be involved. It is an uncomfortable situation. Many will hope the lawsuit will go away.

Where is the great need for a class action here?

Would it not be better for Seaman to let her colleagues know that she is filing the lawsuit and invite them to join if they wish – rather than asking for a class action?

By making this a class action, the judge has made the case far more complex than it was. Mediation and settlement are more difficult. The chances are that it will last a long, long time. The door has been opened for others to sue Duke and UNC – such as nurses, staff and others.

The U.S. is the most litigious society in the world – by far! It gets worse by the day.

Judge Stanley Peele retired from the North Carolina district court in 2013 after 47 years on the bench, serving in 62 counties, mainly Orange and Chatham counties.

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