Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Blocks Hamilton County Judge from Consolidating Hundreds of Malpractice Cases

A Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge lacked the authority to consolidate and hear hundreds of medical malpractice lawsuits filed against a local surgeon who was indicted on federal health-care charges and faces civil cases for performing unnecessary surgeries, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a  per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court found that Judge Robert Ruehlman did not follow state or local rules when he unilaterally transferred cases against Dr. Abubaker Atiq Durrani and several local hospitals to his courtroom. The Court ordered Ruehlman to transfer the cases that were not assigned to him back to the judges to whom they were originally assigned.

Durrani Criminally Charged
The U.S. attorney’s office in 2013 charged Durrani with 10 counts of health-care fraud alleging that he convinced patients to undergo medically unnecessary spinal surgeries then billed private and public health insurers millions of dollars for the fraudulent services. While awaiting trial Durrani fled to his native Pakistan where he was eventually arrested. Hundreds of his former patients filed malpractice lawsuits in Hamilton and Butler County common pleas courts against him and the local hospitals where he practiced. Others filed lawsuits in federal district court. The patients in Butler County and federal court agreed to re-file their cases in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

In January 2015, several former patients asked to have then-Administrative Judge Robert C. Winkler transfer and consolidate all the cases to Judge Ruehlman’s docket. Several of the medical providers opposed the motion, arguing consolidation was not appropriate.

Two weeks after the transfer requests, Judge Ruehlman signed an order transferring all the cases to his docket, and he did not hold a hearing before taking action. A signature line on the entry for Judge Winkler was left blank.

The medical providers alleged that the other judges assigned to hear the cases were not informed of the consolidation, and they sought to vacate Judge Ruehlman’s directive to consolidate the cases. When the request was denied, the providers appealed to the First District Court of Appeals, which dismissed their appeal. The providers then sought a writ of prohibition from the First District asking that it prohibit Judge Ruehlman from making any decisions on the cases, and a writ of mandamus requiring that he transfer the cases back to the other judges assigned to them. The appellate court denied granting the writs and dismissed the case, which the providers appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Ruehlman Lacks Jurisdiction
The Court’s opinion stated that the medical providers have a clear legal right to their requests because Ruehlman “patently and unambiguously” acted without jurisdiction.

The Court explained that a judge’s action of deciding motions in a case is an act of judicial power and Ruehlman lacked the judicial power to act on the cases for three reasons. First, the general rule under the Ohio courts rules of superintendence is that the administrative judge of a court controls the court’s docket. At the time of the consolidation, Judge Winkler was the 12-judge court’s administrative judge.

“The consolidation of a large number of cases—removing them from the judges to whom they had been assigned and assigning them to another judge of the court—is an exercise of control over the docket of the court,” the opinion stated. “In this case, the motion to consolidate was made to the administrative judge—at that time, Judge Robert C. Winkler. Judge Ruehlman nevertheless ignored Judge Winkler’s signature line and signed the consolidation entry himself. Judge Ruehlman lacked the authority of the administrative judge to control the docket.” The Court noted that Ruehlman later became the common pleas court’s administrative judge, but was not in that role when he consolidated the cases.

The opinion explained the second reason Ruehlman lacked the power to act was that Hamilton County had a local court rule that required motions to consolidate cases to be heard by the judge with the least amount of cases assigned. The Court noted Ruehlman did not dispute that he did not have the fewest number of cases and there was no indication that any other judge assigned to the Durrani cases agreed to deviate from the local rule.

Finally, the Court explained that at the time of act, state court rules permitted a consolidation only after a hearing, although the Court noted that as of July 2015 that is no longer a requirement.

“We therefore reverse the court of appeals’ denial of the requested writ of mandamus and order Judge Ruehlman to permanently return each case not originally assigned to him to the judge to whom it was originally assigned,” the Court concluded.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, and William M. O’Neill joined the majority opinion. Justice Judith L. French concurred in judgment only.

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer dissented without a written opinion, but indicated he would affirm the First District’s judgment.

2015-2080. State ex rel. Durrani v. Ruehlman, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-7740.

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