Sealing records in doctor competency claim violates constitution
NORTH CAROLINA–In late November, the state Court of Appeals in Raleigh found that a trial court decision closing courtroom proceedings and sealing judicial documents violated the state constitution.
The appellate court unanimously ruled to direct the trial court to unseal all documents in a civil action filed by a doctor against a hospital following suspension of his medical staff privileges, and to redact names and identifying characteristics if necessary to protect confidential communications between physicians and non-witness patients.
Although noting that judges have inherent supervisory power over court records and proceedings, the court ultimately held that the strong presumption of open access to court proceedings, coupled with the public’s interest in being fully informed about a doctor’s challenge to an assessment of his competency, tipped the balance in favor of public access.
The case arose when Dr. Ron Virmani challenged his suspension from Presbyterian Hospital in the Mecklenburg County Superior Court in Charlotte. Prior to trial, the hospital moved to seal confidential medical peer review committee records and materials it planned to submit, and to close court proceedings in which these records materials would be introduced or discussed. The court granted the motion, and in May 1996 closed the courtroom. The court also denied a request by a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for a continuance to obtain counsel to argue against closure.
The following morning, the trial court summarily denied a motion filed by counsel for the Observer to intervene and to open the proceedings to the public and the news media. The Observer appealed, and the North Carolina Press Association and The News and Observer Publishing Company filed a supporting friend of the court brief.
The court held that the trial court erred in denying the Observer’s motions without holding a hearing and without making findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court observed that it was the hospital, and not the doctor, who filed the materials with the court, and stated that a party cannot “obtain public vindication of its interests in the public forum of our courts without acceding to the public character of” the process.
The court rejected the newspaper’s claim that it had a right of access to the documents under the state open records law, citing a state statute that provides that medical review committee records and materials are not public records. (Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Services Corp.; Media Counsel: John Hasty, Raleigh)