The recent New York Court of Appeals decision in Stega v. New York Downtown Hospital provides strong support for defamation claims arising out of witness testimony in investigations and quasi-judicial hearings. In Stega, the Court held that statements made in administrative proceedings that allegedly defame a person are not absolutely immune where the person has no recourse to challenge the accusations.
The plaintiff, Dr. Jeanetta Stega, a medical scientist and employee of New York Downtown Hospital, was chair of the hospital’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). She assisted Dr. Leonard Farber in arranging a clinical trial of a compound Luminant Bio-Sciences had developed to treat patients with metastatic cancer, which included human subjects. Dr. Stega recused herself from the Downtown Hospital IRB decision approving the trial.
The clinical study went awry as conflicts developed between Dr. Farber and Luminant. Dr. Farber made several allegations against Dr. Stega, including that she had stolen Luminent study money from him, that she had taken funds that did not belong to her, and that the drug compound was toxic and unsafe for patients. Downtown Hospital accused plaintiff of taking funds that did not belong to her and engaging in a conflict of interest by seeking IRB approval when she was a member of the IRB board. Downtown Hospital terminated Dr. Stega after concluding that she had violated the hospital’s conflict of interest policy and improperly taken Luminent money.
Dr. Stega submitted a complaint to the FDA. FDA inspectors interviewed Dr. Stega as well as officials from Downtown Hospital. The FDA inspection report included statements from the Downtown Hospital Acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Stephen Friedman, that Dr. Stega was terminated because she channeled Luminent funds to a research group using her home address and added patients to the study that the IRB would not approve, and because the IRB and their approvals were tainted.
After becoming aware of the FDA inspection report, Dr. Stega commenced a defamation action against Downtown Hospital, Dr. Friedman, and others. Defendants contended that Dr. Friedman’s statements were protected by an absolute privilege because the FDA inspection was a quasi-judicial proceeding.
The Court of Appeals, in a decision by Judge Fahey, held that the statements were not protected by absolute privilege. The Court held that, for absolute immunity to apply in a quasi-judicial context, the process must make available a remedy for the allegedly defamed party to challenge the defamatory statements. The Court focused on the fact that Dr. Stega was not entitled to participate in the FDA’s review and therefore could not challenge Dr. Friedman’s accusations against her. As the FDA investigation process did not provide Dr. Stega with procedural safeguards to contest what was said against her, absolute privilege did not apply. In the Court’s words, “The absolute privilege against defamation applied to communications in certain administrative proceedings is not a license to destroy a person’s character by means of false, defamatory statements.”
Judges Rivera and Garcia dissented, arguing that whether an absolute privilege applies in a quasi-judicial proceeding depends on the nature of the proceedings rather than the status of the subject of the communication. Judge Rivera opined that the majority decision undermined the public policy of encouraging greater openness in communications with government officials. The dissenters would have applied absolute immunity, on the ground that the statements were made in a quasi-judicial proceeding, a federal investigation regarding clinical trials involving human subjects and treatment of life-threatening conditions. The interesting oral argument before the Court of Appeals can be found here.
For the question of whether absolute immunity applies, the Stega decision places the focus on the allegedly defamed person rather than the nature of the proceedings. Witnesses who are giving statements or testimony in administrative proceedings and investigations should be counseled to take care in what they say and how they say it, as absolute immunity may not protect them if their comments lead to a defamation claim.