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Serven v. Health Quest Chiropractic, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Michigan

April 6, 2017

BRUCE D. SERVEN, Plaintiff-Appellee,

         Genesee Circuit Court LC No. 2014-104032-CK

          Before: O'Connell, P.J., and Gleicher and Boonstra, JJ.

          PER CURIAM.

         Bruce Serven is a chiropractor who was disciplined by the Disciplinary Subcommittee of the Michigan Board of Chiropractic. This Court reversed the subcommittee, holding that its order lacked legal and factual merit. Serven then filed suit, alleging that the board members acted with self-interest and improperly penalized him. As to part of Serven's claims, the circuit court denied the defendant board members' motion for summary disposition based on quasi-judicial immunity and qualified immunity as well as failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Because the board members were entitled to absolute immunity as quasi-judicial actors, we reverse and remand for dismissal of Serven's complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of State Farm Insurance Company's retention of Bruce Serven, a licensed chiropractor, to perform an independent chiropractic examination (ICE) on AE. AE had been involved in a motor vehicle accident in May 2004, and two years later sought chiropractic treatment from Health Quest of Burton. Health Quest treated AE approximately three times weekly. At the time, Health Quest was owned, in part, by Solomon Cogan and Silvio Cozzetto. Cogan was also the chairman of the Michigan Board of Chiropractic. Defendants Thomas Klapp and Ronald Wilcox were members of the Michigan Board of Chiropractic Disciplinary Subcommittee.

         Serven conducted a physical examination of AE and elicited his medical history. Serven concluded that AE was "not currently suffering from any type of musculoskeletal condition of spinal origin of causal relationship to the [subject] auto accident." In fact, Serven opined that AE's condition was "normal, " negating the need for any further chiropractic services. Serven further advised State Farm that Health Quest's services provided to date were not "medically necessary for the injuries sustained in this accident." Based in part on this advice, State Farm denied payment for additional treatment to AE. Health Quest filed suit against State Farm seeking reimbursement; Serven and Cogan testified against each other during the trial. State Farm prevailed. Serven alleges that Cogan threatened him, "Obviously I need to see you on a higher level."

         Shortly thereafter, Cogan's business partner, Cozzetto, filed a complaint against Serven with the Michigan Board of Chiropractic. Cozzetto noted that he was sent by his own insurer to Serven for an ICE following a 2000 car accident. Cozzetto alleged that Serven conducted chiropractic and orthopedic tests improperly, leading to an inaccurate report and termination of his insurance benefits. In relation to the current matter, Cozzetto indicated that his associate, Dennis Borja, had examined and treated AE. Cozzetto accused Serven of improperly rendering an opinion without reviewing Health Quest's records and acting outside the scope of his chiropractic license by considering records from medical care providers. The Attorney General subsequently filed an administrative complaint against Serven alleging that his behavior constituted negligence, incompetence, and lack of good moral character under the Public Health Code. See MCL 333.16221. The lack of good moral character allegation was based on Serven's alleged comment during the Board's investigation that Health Quest "had a track record of performing unnecessary treatment." The case was referred to an administrative law judge who determined that Serven was not negligent, incompetent, or lacking in good moral character and issued a proposal for a decision to this effect.

         The Disciplinary Subcommittee of the Michigan Board of Chiropractic did not adopt the ALJ's proposal. At a March 15, 2012 meeting at which Cogan was present, the subcommittee instead found that Serven was negligent because he had not reviewed Health Quest's chiropractic records before issuing his opinion regarding the ICE. In addition, the subcommittee determined that it was "quite likely" that Serven made the comment that Health Quest "had a track record of performing unnecessary treatment, " representing a lack of good moral character. The Board placed Serven on probation for one year. Serven appealed the disciplinary subcommittee's decision.

         This Court held that the disciplinary subcommittee erred, reversed the decision, and remanded with instructions to expunge Serven's record. Bureau of Health Professions v Serven, 303 Mich.App. 305; 842 N.W.2d 561 (2013). We found the Board's conclusion that Serven was negligent legally unsound. Specifically, as an independent chiropractic examiner, Serven owed a duty to State Farm to gather information and provide advice, a duty which Serven fulfilled. Serven's only duty to AE was to not cause physical harm, and there was no allegation Serven had breached that duty. And Serven owed no duty to Health Quest. Id. at 309-310. This Court also rejected the subcommittee's conclusion that Serven's conduct amounted to a lack of good moral character. Serven's alleged comment regarding Health Quest during the Board's investigation was an "attempt[] to be candid" and was not publicized further than necessary. Id. at 310-311.

         Thereafter, Serven filed this lawsuit against Cogan, Klapp, and Wilcox in their individual capacities, alleging claims of malicious prosecution, tortious interference with Serven's advantageous business relationships, abuse of process, and violations of Serven's due process and equal protection rights.[1] Defendants moved for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(6), (C)(7) and (C)(8). The circuit court granted defendants' motion with regard to the constitutional and malicious prosecution claims but denied their motion with regard to Serven's claims for abuse of process and tortious interference. Defendants appeal, contending that the circuit court should have dismissed these claims as well.


         Defendants argue that they are entitled to quasi-judicial immunity because they are part of the Michigan Board of Chiropractic. Summary disposition is appropriate under MCR 2.116(C)(7) where "[e]ntry of judgment, dismissal of the action, or other relief is appropriate because of . . . immunity granted by law[.]" We review de novo a lower court's summary disposition ruling. Maiden v Rozwood, 461 Mich. 109, 119; 597 N.W.2d 817 (1999). "A party may support a motion under MCR 2.116(C)(7) by affidavits, depositions, admissions, or other documentary evidence, " which is otherwise admissible. Id. We must review this evidence "in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Denhof v Challa, 311 Mich.App. 499, 510; 876 N.W.2d 266 (2015). "The contents of the complaint are accepted as true unless contradicted by documentation submitted by the movant." Maiden, 471 Mich. at 119.

         We begin our analysis with the doctrinal sire of quasi-judicial immunity-absolute judicial immunity. "It is well settled that judges are accorded absolute immunity from liability for acts performed in the exercise of their judicial functions." Diehl v Danuloff, 242 Mich.App. 120, 128; 618 N.W.2d 83 (2000). The purpose of absolute immunity is to "protect[] the finality of judgments and preserv[e] the judicial independence by 'insulating judges from vexatious actions prosecuted by disgruntled litigants.' " Id., quoting Forrester v White, 484 U.S. 219, 225; 108 S.Ct. 538; 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988). "[T]he broad scope of the immunity . . . is 'for the benefit of the public, whose interest it is that the judges should be at liberty to exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequences.' " Id. at 129, quoting Pierson v Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554; 87 S.Ct. 1213; 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967) (citations omitted). Accordingly, judges "are not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, and are alleged to have been done maliciously or corruptly." Bradley v Fisher, 80 U.S. (13 Wall) 335, 351-352; 20 L.Ed. 646 (1872). Absolute immunity is necessary because "controversies sufficiently intense to erupt in litigation are not easily capped by a judicial decree" and could ...

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