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Bissette v. University of Mississippi Medical Center

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

June 25, 2019

GARTH BISSETTE, PH.D. APPELLANT
v.
UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI MEDICAL CENTER, WILLIAM WOOLVERTON, PH.D., CRAIG STOCKMEIER, PH.D., JEFFERSON PARKER, PH.D., GRAYSON NORQUIST, PH.D. AND JAMES KEETON, M.D. APPELLEES

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 04/02/2018

          COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: WILLIAM MATTHEW BURCH YANCY B. BURNS JONATHON GARTH BISSETTE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: JOHN T. KITCHENS R. E. PARKER JR. MINOR F. BUCHANAN ROBERT V. GREENLEE THOMAS EUGENE WHITFIELD JR. PENNY B. LAWSON

          BEFORE BARNES, C.J., McDONALD AND C. WILSON, JJ.

          MCDONALD, J.,

         ¶1. Former tenured professor Garth Bissette, Ph.D sued the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), William Woolverton, Ph.D., Craig Stockmeier, Ph.D., Jefferson Parker, Ph.D., Grayson Norquist, Ph.D., and James Keeton, M.D. for breach of a separation agreement, false representation, and civil conspiracy. Bissette specifically sued Woolverton for slander as well. The Hinds County Circuit Court granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment and dismissed the case. From that dismissal, Bissette appeals.

         FACTS

         ¶2. Bissette is a psychoneuroendocrinologist who was recruited from Duke University in 1995 by UMMC's Dr. Angelos Halaris, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior. In 2002, Bissette was awarded tenure pursuant to Dr. Halaris's glowing summary of his accomplishments. Between 2002 and 2005, Bissette's annual reviews were satisfactory.

         ¶3. In 2005, Stockmeier became the division director of research in the Department of Psychiatry and Bissette's immediate supervisor. Between 2005 and 2010, Stockmeier gave Bissette five unsatisfactory performance evaluations, two of which were reversed by department chair Norquist. But Bissette's three unsatisfactory ratings triggered UMMC's Post Tenure Review procedure in May 2011. That procedure involved a review by a three-member committee, two of whom were chosen by Bissette's department chair, Norquist, and one chosen by Bissette. The three committee members were to review Bissette's work and recommend to Norquist either dismissal or remediation plans. Bissette chose Ian Paul, Ph.D., and Norquist chose Woolverton and Parker to form the committee. Bissette made no objection to these appointments. The committee was advisory, and Norquist was not bound by its recommendation. If Bissette was dissatisfied with Norquist's decision, he could pursue further procedural appeals under UMMC's policies and procedures.

         ¶4. The committee interviewed Stockmeier and covered the negative reviews he had given Bissette. They met twice with Bissette who told the committee that he felt that Stockmeier may have retaliated against him because Norquist had overturned one of Stockmeier's negative reviews. Bissette also said that Stockmeier was biased because he focused his annual review on things Bissette did not do well (e.g., maintain a productive research program) rather than on things that he did do well (national service). The committee also met with Norquist and Dr. Celso Gomez-Sanchez, who collaborated with Bissette briefly. In a written report, the committee recommended termination, which the committee said it did not take lightly especially because Bissette was a tenured colleague who had been a member of the department for fifteen years. But the committee felt past remediation plans had been clear and reasonable but not met. The committee felt further remediation plans would not improve the situation, and they voted unanimously to recommend dismissal.

         ¶5. Instead of continuing the post-tenure review process, Bissette reached an agreement with UMMC to remain employed through November 2011 at full pay with benefits and then resign. UMMC agreed to give Bissette a favorable recommendation, and Bissette agreed to release UMMC from any and all claims Bissette may have had from either his employment or termination. These terms were memorialized in a Separation Agreement and Release ("Separation Agreement") on May 31, 2011, and signed by Bissette and Keeton, who as Vice Chancellor at UMMC signs all contracts on behalf of UMMC. The terms of the agreement, which included an agreement not to disparage each other, were to remain confidential. Norquist said he was made aware of the agreement but not of its contents. Norquist also confirmed that Woolverton was not told of either the agreement or the contents. Thereafter, Bissette continued to work through November 2011, received his pay, and then resigned.

         ¶6. In March 2012, Woolverton attended a conference sponsored by the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington, D.C. He was paid a stipend and his expenses by NIH for his work reviewing grants at the conference. Woolverton lunched one day with two other conferees, Dr. Michael Owens of Emory University and Dr. Steven Dworkin of Western Illinois University. On the way back to the conference, Dr. Owens asked Woolverton how Bissette was doing, to which Woolverton allegedly responded that Bissette had been subject to the post-tenure review after three unsatisfactory annual reviews and eventually terminated. Woolverton also allegedly said that Bissette was only hired because of a threat of blackmail made against Dr. Halaris, chairman of the department at the time. Woolverton further allegedly stated that Bissette was "poison" to the department, that Bissette had achieved no professional accomplishments during his tenure, and that he did nothing with regard to scholarship or professional service following his annual reviews. Woolverton added that Bissette was often intoxicated upon returning to work from lunch. Although Dr. Dworkin recalled the conversation slightly differently, he did confirm Woolverton's comments for the most part except for statements concerning "blackmail" or "poison." Dworkin also said that it appeared to him that Dr. Owens was aware of Bissette's dismissal and was trying to get more information concerning it.

         ¶7. When he learned about this conversation, Bissette wrote to Keeton. Bissette felt Wolverton's statements revealed Woolverton's personal animosity against him, which Bissette felt had to have tainted the integrity of the post-tenure review process itself. Bissette said he felt he was denied an unbiased review and that he was fraudulently induced into relinquishing his right to continued employment. He threatened to file a lawsuit if they could not resolve the matter, and he specifically deemed the letter to be his notice of claim to UMMC under Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-46-1 (Rev. 2012).

         ¶8. On December 6, 2012, Bissette filed his complaint against UMMC, Woolverton, and other doctors in Hinds County Circuit Court. He pleaded causes of action for slander, fraud, fraudulent concealment, fraudulent inducement, tortious interference with prospective contracts, breach of contract, bad faith breach of contract, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. After answers were filed and the court entered a scheduling order, Woolverton died on June 13, 2013. Woolverton's attorneys filed a suggestion of death, and on August 1, 2013, Bissette filed a motion for leave to substitute Woolverton's estate; however, no estate was ever opened or substituted. On the theory that Bissette was fraudulently induced to sign the Separation Agreement and would not have left his employment, Bissette's expert economist calculated his past and future wage loss at $1, 562, 734.

         ¶9. During the years the case was pending, the parties exchanged written discovery and filed motions, but no depositions were taken. Ultimately, all parties submitted motions for partial summary judgment or summary judgment. Bissette moved for partial summary judgment alleging that Woolverton had breached the Separation Agreement; Woolverton's counsel filed for summary judgment on the claims against him; and UMMC, Keeton, Norquist, Parker, and Stockmeier moved for summary judgment on all claims. The circuit court granted the defendants' motions and denied Bissette's in its "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order of Dismissal" entered on August 2, 2018. Bissette appeals from that judgment.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶10. Appellate review of a trial-level court's grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment is de novo. Adams v. Graceland Care Ctr. of Oxford LLC, 208 So.3d 575, 579 (¶9) (Miss. 2017). Rule 56(c) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure provides that summary judgment is proper where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." "When considering a motion for summary judgment, the trial-level court must view all evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party." Morton v. City of Shelby, 984 So.2d 323, 329 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). Questions concerning the construction and interpretation of contracts are questions of law which we review de novo. Royer Homes of Miss. Inc. v. Chandeleur Homes Inc., 857 So.2d 748, 751 (¶4) (Miss. 2003).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment in favor or UMMC, Stockmeier, Parker, Norquist, and Keeton on the breach of contract claim.

         ¶11. Bissette's breach of contract claim turns on whether Woolverton was a party to the Separation Agreement and Woolverton's status with ...


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