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Morris v. CCA of Tennessee, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

May 16, 2017




         This cause comes before the court on the motion of defendant CCA of Tennessee, LLC (“CCA”) for summary judgment, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Plaintiff Joe Edward Morris, Ph.D. has responded in opposition to the motion. This court, having considered the memoranda and submissions of the parties, concludes that the motion should be granted in part and denied in part.

         This is a wrongful termination action, based on Mississippi law, arising out of plaintiff's firing as a psychologist at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility (TCCF), a private prison located near Tutwiler. Plaintiff, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, has maintained a private practice in north Mississippi since 1980. [Morris Dep. at 13]. In 2014, plaintiff, with the assistance of an attorney, negotiated an agreement with CCA to provide part-time psychological services at TCCF. Plaintiff and CCA agreed in their contract that he would be an independent contractor, and they likewise agreed that either side could cancel the contract with thirty days' notice. [Defendant's exhibit B]. The parties also agreed that, upon a material breach by plaintiff, CCA could immediately terminate the agreement.

         Soon after starting work at TCCF, plaintiff began experiencing difficulties in his relationship with Dr. Dan Murphy, another psychologist at TCCF. Dr. Murphy had more experience at TCCF than plaintiff, and the record suggests that he sought to serve as a mentor of sorts to plaintiff when he was hired to work at the prison. The record indicates that plaintiff took exception to Dr. Murphy's leadership, and, in a contemporaneous email, he expressed his view that he was being treated like a “small child” by Dr. Murphy. [Plaintiff's exhibit 14]. The disagreements among these two men culminated in Dr. Murphy writing, on February 24, 2015, an email to CCA management, in which he alleged that plaintiff had, on three occasions, provided substandard care to patients and should not be granted the full-time position which he was seeking at the prison. [Plaintiff's exhibit 17]. After reviewing these allegations, Dr. John Baxter, in his capacity as Vice President of Health Services for CCA, determined that plaintiff had committed a material breach of his contract which justified his immediate termination, without thirty days' notice. Feeling aggrieved, plaintiff filed the instant diversity action in this court, seeking both contractual and tort damages arising out of the decision to fire him.

         In considering plaintiff's tort claims against CCA, this court begins with the fact that Mississippi is an employment at will state and as such, in the vast majority of contexts, an employee can be lawfully fired for any reason, without a showing of “good cause.” As discussed below, a different analysis applies to plaintiff's breach of contract claim, which is dependent upon the terms of his employment contract with CCA. It appears (but is not certain) that any potential contractual damages in this case may be relatively minor, and it is therefore unsurprising that plaintiff has chosen to concentrate heavily on his tort claims. This court will therefore discuss plaintiff's tort claims first, even though it concludes, as discussed below, that his breach of contract claim is the only one which survives summary judgment in this case.

         Plaintiff asserts two tort claims against CCA in this case, namely 1) a claim that he was fired for refusing to engage in unlawful conduct, in contravention of the Mississippi Supreme Court's decision in McArn v. Allied Bruce-Terminix Co., Inc., 626 So.2d 603 (Miss. 1993); and 2) a tortious breach of contract claim alleging that his firing was so malicious as to constitute an independent tort. This court will discuss the elements of these two causes of action in turn.

         In seeking to recover under McArn, plaintiff correctly notes that, in that decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court established a narrow exception to the employment at will doctrine, writing that:

We are of the opinion that there should be in at least two circumstances, a narrow public policy exception to the employment at will doctrine and this should be so whether there is a written contract or not: (1) an employee who refuses to participate in an illegal act . . . shall not be barred by the common law rule of employment at will from bringing an action in tort for damages against his employer; (2) an employee who is discharged for reporting illegal acts of his employer to the employer or anyone else is not barred by the employment at will doctrine from bringing action in tort for damages against his employer.

McArn, 626 So.2d at 607. Plaintiff relies upon the first of these two exceptions here, alleging (in a manner seemingly contradicted by some of his other allegations) that he was fired for refusing to change his diagnoses of certain patients, when asked to do so by Dr. Murphy. With regard to plaintiff's second cause of action, “[t]ortious breach of contract requires, in addition to a breach of contract, some intentional wrong, insult, abuse, or negligence so gross as to constitute an independent tort.” Southern Natural Gas Co. v. Fritz, 523 So.2d 12, 19-20 (Miss.1987). “In addition to a breach of contract we must find some intentional wrong, insult, abuse, or negligence so gross as to constitute an independent tort in order to support a claim for tortious breach of contract.” Fritz, 523 So.2d at 19-20.

         In the court's view, there is considerable overlap between plaintiff's two tort claims against CCA, and the same weaknesses in his proof are fatal to both claims. In so stating, this court concludes that plaintiff's most fundamental problem is that his own description of why he was fired does not match the causes of action he asserts. In his brief, plaintiff provides the following explanation for why he was fired:

         V. Real Reason Dr. Morris was Terminated

Dr. Murphy maliciously lied about Dr. Morris to his bosses. [Dr. Morris depo., p. 143] Dr. Murphy felt threatened by Dr. Morris, because Dr. Morris was popular with the staff and Dr. Murphy was not. [Dr. Morris depo., p. 145]. Dot Strong testified that Dr. Morris was very popular with the staff, but Dr. Murphy was not. [Strong depo., pp. 7-8]. Dot confirmed that Dr. Murphy had a grudge against Dr. Morris and was out to get him. [Strong depo., pp. 11-12].
Dr. Morris was never written-up or counseled while working at TCCF. [Gurley depo., p. 23] Dot Strong was not aware of any issues with Dr. Morris' job performance, and would have known if there were any issues, “because they would have brought them to me.” [Strong depo., p. 8] Dot Strong thought Dr. Morris' job performance was excellent: “Inmates liked him and he was liked by the staff.” [Strong depo., p. 8] Dot Strong was not aware of Dr. Morris violating any policies or procedures of CCA. [Strong depo., pp. 20-22] In fact, inmates would specifically request to see him. [Strong depo., p. 25] Strong was shocked and hurt when she found out that Dr. Morris was fired. [Strong depo., pp. 32-33, 44].
A reasonable jury could conclude that Dr. Murphy sent the slanderous email up to the chain [sic] which led to Dr. Morris' termination because he did not want Dr. Morris to have the full-time position due to personal animosity, caused in part because Dr. Morris refused to falsify his medical records.

[Plaintiff's brief at 17-18].

         Thus, plaintiff's own explanation for his firing is overwhelmingly based upon allegations of misconduct against Dr. Murphy, arising out of that individual's alleged “personal animosity” towards him. That fact is quite problematic for plaintiff's tort claims, since Dr. Murphy is not a defendant in this action, and any wrongful misconduct by an employee based on his own “personal animosity” is difficult (if not impossible) to impute to the employer, for the purposes of Mississippi's very limited exceptions to the employment at will doctrine. Indeed, it should be apparent that the first reason cited by plaintiff for Dr. Murphy's animosity, namely plaintiff's allegedly being more popular among staff, is of no apparent concern whatsoever to CCA.

         Dr. Murphy has since passed away, and it is unclear to this court whether plaintiff's failure to name his estate as a defendant arises from some legal or practical impediment to doing so. Regardless, the sole defendant in this case is CCA, and that is the party against whom plaintiff must establish liability in this case. CCA argues that Dr. Murphy served as an independent contractor at TCCF, but, regardless, this court does not believe that his employment status greatly changes the analysis in this context. The same conclusion applies to plaintiff's employment status, which the parties similarly dispute.[1] In so stating, this court emphasizes once again that Mississippi law generally frees an employer to fire an employee for any reason he sees fit. The only exceptions to the employment at will doctrine are exceedingly limited ones involving rather egregious fact patterns. In this court's view, the alleged scenario involving Dr. Murphy does not rise to this level, for the purpose of plaintiff's tort claims against CCA. Indeed, it does not strike this court as an uncommon scenario that personal animosity might develop between two employees and that, as a result, one of them might spread lies about the other in order to have him fired. That is what plaintiff alleges that Dr. Murphy did in this case, and this court notes that, because he has since died, he is not in a position to defend himself against these accusations. Even accepting plaintiff's allegations as accurate, however, they simply do not involve the sort of facts which might serve to impose liability against CCA under Mississippi's employment jurisprudence.

         In the court's view, the strongest potential basis for plaintiff's asserting tort claims against CCA is his allegation that he was fired for refusing to change his medical diagnoses of inmates. Indeed, plaintiff does have a coherent theory as to why CCA might have had a motivation to fire him on that basis, although, as discussed below, he fails to support this theory with actual proof. With regard to plaintiff's theory, the record in this case does indicate that CCA incarcerates a large number of California inmates and that relevant regulations required any such prisoners who were diagnosed with psychological illnesses to be transferred back to their home state. Any such transfer would cost CCA inmates, and therefore profits, and this might well give rise to a plausible theory that plaintiff was fired for (correctly) diagnosing too many patients with mental illness, thereby negatively impacting CCA's bottom line. This court agrees that this would be a very troubling practice which might, at least conceivably, fall within the limited exceptions to the employment at will doctrine.

         Having said that, it does seem clear that any court wishing to apply McArn in the present context would have to tread carefully, lest it impose liability on the basis of legitimate medical disagreements among doctors. This court believes that strong public policy considerations support encouraging doctors to speak freely regarding the proper diagnosis of patients, and, as such, any court would need to take great care in applying McArn in this context, lest it unwisely discourage candid consultations among doctors. These reservations notwithstanding, this court would not be at all unreceptive to any actual proof suggesting that CCA encouraged its psychologists not to diagnose patients with mental illnesses, in the interests of protecting its own profits. This court believes that, if a particular plaintiff's proof established that a medical provider ordered diagnoses to be changed based on concerns regarding profits, rather than patient care, then he would at least have an argument that McArn should apply.

         While the court thus believes that McArn might at least arguably apply in the medical diagnosis context, it seems clear that, in order to prevail, the plaintiff would need to present much stronger proof of wrongdoing by the defendant than plaintiff offers in this case. Indeed, to the extent that plaintiff mentions the diagnosis issue at all in the quotation above, he frames it as simply another reason for Dr. Murphy to have had personal animosity against him. True enough, in other sections of his brief, plaintiff does directly allege that CCA fired him for refusing to engage in illegal conduct, but he never offers any actual proof that this is the case. As quoted above, plaintiff does make a conclusory allegation that the personal animosity between himself and Dr. Murphy was “caused in part because Dr. Morris refused to falsify his medical records.” Even if this court were to accept plaintiff's bare allegation in this regard as sufficient, the fact remains that such an allegation would not suffice to establish liability against CCA under McArn.

         Clearly, a termination resulting from false allegations arising out of a personal dispute among employees is not the sort of conduct which the McArn cause of action was intended to address.

         Moreover, this court concludes that plaintiff's brief attempts to improperly conflate disagreements about a diagnosis among doctors with a falsification of medical records, within the meaning of a Mississippi criminal statute. In his brief, plaintiff writes that:

In this case, on three occasions Dr. Murphy asked Dr. Morris to change a diagnosis, which was in effect asking him to falsify his medical records. Each time Dr. Morris refused. . . . If Dr. Morris had changed his diagnosis in his medical chart, he would be guilty of a crime violating state law. Miss. Code Ann. § 41-10-1, “Falsification or destruction of medical chart” [provides that]:
(1) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (3), a person, knowing that the information is misleading or inaccurate, shall not intentionally, willfully or recklessly place or direct another to place in a patient's medical record or chart misleading or inaccurate information regarding the diagnosis, care, treatment or cause of a patient's condition. A violation of this subsection is punishable as follows: a person who intentionally or willfully or recklessly violates this subsection is guilty of a misdemeanor, ...

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