Another Iowa doctor facing competency case anonymously sues the state

By: - December 22, 2021 10:48 am

(Photo courtesy of the Iowa Board of Medicine)

Another Iowa doctor is suing the state under the name “John Doe,” this time in an effort to block the Iowa Board of Medicine from issuing a public statement of charges against him.

The board argues it has “competency concerns” with the physician and that its case against the doctor should be allowed to proceed “in the interest of public safety.”

The case marks the fourth time in the past two years that an Iowa doctor has taken a public, state agency to court while also attempting to shield his identity from the public.

The current case involves a physician whose conduct was reviewed by the Iowa Board of Medicine in 2019. In November of that year, the board issued a confidential order against the physician, requiring him to undergo a competency evaluation. The order stemmed from a complaint generated by a hospital where the doctor practiced.

The doctor was evaluated by the Center for Personalized Education for Physicians, which then issued a recommendation that he receive additional assistance from the center to meet his “educational needs.”

In June of this year, the board sent the doctor a recommended settlement agreement that would require him to comply with the center’s recommendations and submit to five years of probationary status that would include board monitoring. The board notified the doctor that if he did not agree to the settlement, which would become a public document, the case would result in public disciplinary charges and a hearing on the matter would be scheduled.

The doctor then went to Polk County District Court and, while identifying himself only as “Dr. John Doe,” asked for an injunction that would prevent the board from filing public charges against him, arguing that such action would result in the revocation of his National Board Certification and “end” his career.

“The issuance of a statement of charges, which would brandish Dr. Doe with an unfounded claim as the result of numerous due process and statutory violations, would greatly and irreparably and unfairly injure Dr. Doe,” the doctor’s attorney, Michael Sellers, told the court.

Sellers asked for an injunction that would prevent the board from making public its allegations against the doctor, noting that the case had been “ongoing for years” with no public action taken, and that the doctor was not currently practicing in Iowa.

District Court Judge Lawrence P. McLellan agreed to Sellers’ request for an injunction and later ordered that exhibits in the case be filed under seal.

The board subsequently filed a motion to set aside the injunction, noting that there had been no hearing on the issue before the injunction was granted. The board also argued that the court did not have the authority to halt the board’s proceedings until the doctor asked the board itself for a such a delay and the board denied the request.

“Licensees should not be permitted to delay board proceedings through eleventh-hour ‘emergency’ temporary injunctions with no opportunity for the Board to respond,” the board’s attorney argued. As “Dr. Doe states in his petition, this investigation has been ongoing for years. What Dr. Doe fails to mention is that recent delays, since the issuance of the evaluation order in 2019, have been almost entirely the fault of Dr. Doe’s failure to timely comply with board orders … The board had identified competency concerns and if, upon review, it feels that a statement of charges is justified, then it is in the interest of public safety and welfare to have that matter proceed to discipline as soon as possible.”

Sellers has since filed a resistance to the state’s motion and an amendment to his original court fling. Rather than redact identifying information from the documents, the court has ordered those filings to be sealed from public view in their entirety.

As part of that case, Sellers asked for the assistance of the court in keeping Doe’s name secret by making documents available to the judge without having then filed with the court. In making that argument, he cited the “recent public disclosure of the identity of three separate licensed physicians who filed ‘John Doe petitions’ in Iowa District Court.”

Sellers appears to be referring to three other ‘John Doe’ cases that were the subject of Iowa Capital Dispatch news stories in 2020 and 2021:

The Salaria case: In August 2020, an Iowa physician accused of sexual misconduct with a 19-year-old patient sued the Board of Medicine while identifying himself in court papers only as “Dr. John Doe.” However, the doctor’s attorney included in his public filings a reference to his client as “Dr. Salaria.” State records show only one Iowa-licensed physician by that name — Dr. Vikrant Salaria of the First Care Medical Center in Council Bluffs, who denied any knowledge of the case when contacted by the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

The Obamwonyi case: Earlier this year, an emergency room physician who had allegedly caused the death of a patient in 2017 took the Iowa Board of Medicine to court while identifying himself only as “Dr. John Doe.” The doctor sought an emergency hearing on his efforts to block the board from proceeding with charges against him alleging professional incompetency.

State records indicate the specific allegations against Doe, as well as the timing of various board filings, correspond to actions involving the license of Dr. Andrew O. Obamwonyi, a 57-year-old physician who has practiced in Des Moines and Storm Lake.

The Calcaterra case: In a third John Doe case, an Iowa judge ruled in 2020 that a physician accused of shoving another doctor during an operating-room altercation could not sue the state under an assumed name. That case involved Dr. Domenico Calcaterra, a vascular surgeon who worked at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics from 2008 to 2012.

As part of the litigation, Johnson County District Court Judge Christopher Bruns refused to let the lawsuit against the UIHC and the Board of Regents proceed with Calcaterra identified only as “John Doe,” noting that “the public would have a heightened interest in this litigation because (the defendants) are public institutions and the state itself.”

Bruns referenced the late Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady in his ruling, noting that Cady had observed on more than one occasion that “the Iowa courts must be transparent. Court records are public records … The circumstances of the present case are not such that the court finds there is a basis to file this action under a pseudonym even if the court has discretion to allow a party to do so. The public interest in knowing who the plaintiff is outweighs the plaintiff’s interest in protecting his/her name from disclosure.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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