Storm Lake doctor accused of causing patient’s death appeals court decision

By: - October 6, 2022 4:29 pm

An emergency room physician who continued to see patients while allegedly posing a “high risk” to the public is appealing a court decision upholding the Iowa Board of Medicine's right to re-open an investigation into the physician. (Photo by Prapass Pulsub/Getty Images)

An emergency room physician accused of causing the death of a patient in 2017 has lost the first round in his court fight against the Iowa Board of Medicine, but is now appealing that decision.

Court records indicate Dr. Andrew Obamwonyi of Storm Lake is appealing a district court ruling that upheld the right of the Board of Medicine to reopen a previously closed disciplinary case tied to allegations of incompetence.

In July, Polk County District Judge Celene Gogerty ruled the board had not, as Obamwonyi claimed, abused its discretion, failed to give the doctor due process, or taken unconstitutional actions against him.

Gogerty rejected Obamwonyi’s assertion that the board, by reopening a previously closed disciplinary case, had subjected him to double jeopardy. His attorney cited the law that says “when a civil penalty constitutes punishment” the double-jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United States comes into play.

Gogerty noted that the disciplinary case was initially closed by the board with no action taken and so there was no prior acquittal, conviction, or penalty imposed, which means the issue of double-jeopardy doesn’t apply.

Gogerty also ruled that the board’s ability to re-open a case is supported not only by case law but by the Iowa statute that says the board “may at any time reopen for review and reconsideration any complaint or investigative file that has been closed administratively.”

Obamwonyi’s attorney, Mike Sellers, has since filed a notice of appeal in the case.

In his litigation with the board, Obamwonyi identified himself in court records only as “Dr. John Doe.” However, the judge in the case and the Iowa attorney general’s office each filed documents in the public court file identifying “Doe” as Obamwonyi.

Disciplinary case gave rise to two lawsuits

State records indicate Obamwonyi’s involvement with the licensing board began in 2014, when the board was informed by an insurance company that he had paid a $150,000 malpractice settlement for an alleged failure to diagnose a medical issue.

After Obamwonyi failed to respond to the board’s inquiries, the board filed a statement of charges against him alleging failure to comply with a board investigation. That case was settled with a confidential letter of warning.

By that time, however, the board had received a complaint from a patient about another alleged instance of failure to diagnose a medical issue. In March 2017, the board was informed of a $50,000 malpractice settlement made to that second patient, and six months later the board ordered Obamwonyi to undergo a clinical competency evaluation.

The evaluation took place in April 2018, which resulted in an August 2018 report to the board alleging Obamwonyi demonstrated deficiencies in medical knowledge and clinical judgment and reasoning. One year later, the board acted on those findings and filed a public statement of charges against the doctor, alleging professional incompetency.

Last year, with the matter still pending, Obamwonyi sought dismissal of the case and asked the board to reconsider its actions, alleging a lack of probable cause for issuing a statement of charges.

The board rejected that request, noting that Obamwonyi had an opportunity to object to the board’s actions in 2017 and had failed to do so. The board said the only issue for it to decide was whether the results of the evaluation supported the conclusion that Obamwonyi is professionally incompetent — an issue he could address at a hearing before the board.

Sellers, Obamwonyi’s attorney, took the matter to court in April 2021. Sellers argued the doctor “has been an emergency room physician for over 20 years and this board has never received a complaint about him regarding his care or treatment of any patient except for the insurance company decisions to settle cases for their own protection … This board cannot tell this court with a straight face that they somehow claim that they have a basis for suggesting that any actual imminent public interest is at stake.”

Sellers also argued that the board “cannot possibly claim that there is a public interest that overrides the interest of (the doctor) in this case.” In his filings, he stated that the board’s order for a competency evaluation contained false statements suggesting the doctor had caused “the death of a patient.”

Attorneys for the board told the court “the charge in this case is one of professional incompetency.” The board said it should be able to hear the case and make findings as quickly as possible about “the potential threat” that the doctor posed to Iowans due to “his professional incompetency.”

In January, after the board prevailed in court and took action against Obamwonyi, Sellers filed the second of the two lawsuits against the board, appealing the board’s decision without disclosing the nature of that decision or the specifics of his client’s history, saying he would do so only after the court agreed to approve his request to file all briefs and attachments in the case under seal.

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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.