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San Diego Hospital Based Physicians (SDHBP) and its two owners, Dr. Maria Ramirez and Dr. Dalia Strauser, sued El Centro Regional Medical Center alleging the Hospital retaliated against plaintiffs for complaining about patient care practices. The Hospital is a municipal agency owned by the City of El Centro and is governed by a seven-person Board of Trustees. SDHBP is an entity that provides hospitalist personnel and services. SDHBP is owned by Dr. Strauser and Dr. Ramirez, who both specialize in internal medicine and hospital medicine. Dr. Strauser has practiced medicine for more than 20 years and Dr. Ramirez has practiced medicine for more than 15 years. Hospitalists are generally internal medicine doctors who treat hospitalized patients to ensure they receive proper care, including diagnosis and appropriate specialty referrals.

According to allegations in the complaint, the Hospital hired Team Health, Inc. to manage and operate the Hospital’s emergency department. Shortly after, SDHBP became concerned about Team Health’s practices and the nature of the contract between the Hospital and Team Health, which SDHBP believed negatively affected patient care. SDHBP doctors found that Team Health physicians frequently admitted patients into the Hospital (or sought to compel SDHBP physicians to do so) despite the fact that these patients were not properly stabilized, diagnosed, or treated in the emergency room and/or that they should have been transferred to other hospitals with available surgeons and/or necessary medical equipment.

Dr. Ramirez and Dr. Strauser reported to Hospital administrators “at the highest levels” their concerns about patient care arising from Team Health practices and operations. The doctors identified approximately 35 specific cases of inadequate patient care. Later, SDHBP sent an email to Dr. George Hancock, the Hospital’s chief of medicine (who became medical chief of staff on January 1, 2011), detailing 19 separate cases in which Team Health and Hospital practices allegedly negatively affected patient care in a substantial manner. SDHBP also sent the email to several other Hospital officials, including the Board president, the Hospital’s chief of staff, and the Hospital’s quality committee chair.

On March 22, 2011, the Hospital’s Board held its monthly public meeting. During a closed (nonpublic) portion of this meeting, the Board voted to terminate the SDHBP Agreement “without cause.” When Dr. Strauser asked Hospital official Virgen why the Agreement was terminated, he allegedly said ” ‘you turned on the light and all the cockroaches ran away scared.’ ”

Several months later, plaintiffs filed their lawsuit against the Hospital and Team Health. Plaintiffs alleged five causes of action against the Hospital. In the first three, plaintiffs alleged the Hospital violated statutes prohibiting retaliation against physicians for complaining about, or advocating for, patient care. The Hospital moved to strike the complaint under the anti-SLAPP statute. (§ 425.16.) The Hospital argued that plaintiffs’ complaint arose from constitutionally protected activity because it was based on the Board’s contract termination decision, which it said was a “quasi-legislative” act made at an “official proceeding.” The trial court denied the motion, and the Hospital appealed. The Court of Appeal sustained the denial of the anti-SLAPP motion in the unpublished opinion of San Diego Hospital Based Physicians vs El Centro Regional Medical Center.

One of the elements required to reject an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss is a determination that there is a “probability” that plaintiffs will prevail on its claims. In meeting this burden, the plaintiff cannot rely solely on the allegations in the complaint and must present evidence that would be admissible at trial. The Court of Appeal concluded that plaintiffs met this burden, and may proceed with their case.