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Inland Family Practice Center, LLC v. Amerson

Supreme Court of Mississippi

November 8, 2018

INLAND FAMILY PRACTICE CENTER, LLC, AND IKECHUKWU OKORIE, M.D.
v.
SALLIE M. AMERSON

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 08/01/2017

          FORREST COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. JON MARK WEATHERS TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: CHARLES EDWARD COWAN R. MARK HODGES

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: SALLIE M. AMERSON (PRO SE)

          BEFORE RANDOLPH, P.J., KING AND ISHEE, JJ.

          ISHEE, JUSTICE

         ¶1. Sallie Amerson sued Inland Family Clinic LLC and Dr. Ikechukwu Okorie over an allegedly defamatory statement Dr. Okorie made to another physician concerning Amerson's apparent use of illegal drugs. The Defendants moved for summary judgment, contending the statements were privileged, but the Forrest County Circuit Court denied the motion. Inland and Dr. Okorie petitioned this Court for interlocutory review, which we granted. After due consideration, we reverse the decision of the circuit court and render summary judgment in favor of Inland and Dr. Okorie.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. Inland is a family clinic located in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, owned and operated by Dr. Okorie. Amerson was a patient of Dr. Okorie's from April 2011 to March 2013. Amerson suffers from a variety of ailments, including chronic back pain for which Dr. Okorie prescribed opioid (narcotic) pain medications. Since opioids are notoriously addictive and can readily be resold on the black market, Amerson was required to comply with Inland's "Pain Management Policy." The policy informed Amerson that if she were to violate its terms, Dr. Okorie "may stop prescribing [the] pain-control medications." Specifically, it was an express violation of the policy for Amerson to use "any illegal substances." She was required to submit to monthly drug screenings, performed by an outside lab, which tested for illegal or non-prescribed drugs. Amerson signed the policy.

         ¶3. In February 2013, Amerson tested positive for amphetamines and methadone-two drugs for which she had no prescription. Dr. Okorie then informed Amerson he would no longer prescribe her narcotics; Dr. Okorie's notes reflect that his decision was based on Amerson's "prior . . . and present history of taking a non-prescribed narcotic."[1] While Dr. Okorie offered to continue treating Amerson for her other ailments, he referred her to Dr. Joseph Farina for treatment of her chronic back pain.

         ¶4. Amerson visited Dr. Farina in March 2013, but Dr. Farina refused to prescribe narcotics after discovering that Amerson had already depleted her existing prescription, just sixteen days after it had been filled. That same day, Amerson returned to Dr. Okorie seeking narcotics, which Dr. Okorie again refused to prescribe. A week later, Amerson visited Dr. Jeffery Morris. Dr. Morris had treated Amerson for certain ailments dating back roughly to 2010. Dr. Morris informed Amerson he would need her medical records from Dr. Okorie before he could prescribe anything for her back pain.

         ¶5. While awaiting Dr. Morris's decision, Amerson again returned to Dr. Okorie. Amerson submitted to another drug screening, and she again tested positive for amphetamines and methadone. Dr. Okorie refused to prescribe Amerson narcotic medications a third time, and Amerson did not visit him again. Then, in early April 2013, Amerson was informed by Dr. Morris's office that he would not prescribe narcotic medications based on Dr. Okorie's statement to him that Amerson had tested positive for "amphetamines and methamphetamines." Dr. Morris conveyed the same to one of his nurses, Hope West, who recorded Dr. Morris's comments on a faxed copy of Amerson's lab results. West wrote that "Dr. Okorie stated he wasn't writing her narcotics due to being positive for amphetamines [and] methamphetamines" and "[patient] notified 4/11/13."

         ¶6. Apparently, Dr. Okorie was mistaken when he said Amerson tested positive for methamphetamines; the correct interpretation of Amerson's drug test report was that she had tested positive for methadone. Methamphetamines would not have shown up separately in the results as they fell under the "amphetamine" heading.[2] Claiming that Dr. Okorie's statement to Dr. Morris was false and defamatory, Amerson filed her complaint in June 2013. The crux of her complaint alleged that Dr. Okorie had defamed her by telling others she had used illegal drugs, and, as a result, she suffered personal and economic injuries.

         ¶7. Ultimately, Inland and Dr. Okorie moved for summary judgment, arguing that Dr. Okorie's statement to Dr. Morris was protected by a qualified privilege. The circuit court found genuine issues of material fact remained as to the nature and content of the statement, and it denied summary judgment. ...


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