October 7, 2022

Alex o'Loughlin

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Lawyer: Doctors who sued CHCC, RHC have constitutional right to jury trial | News

DOCTORS Francois Claassens and James Toskas want their case heard by an impartial jury, said attorney Tiberius Mocanu who represents them in their lawsuit against the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation and the Rota Health Center.

“The Government wants to protect its coffers and it thinks that it will have a better chance doing so with this court as the trier of fact than a jury. Nevertheless, the Government can rest assured that the downside liability it faces is identical with this court or with a jury. Conversely, Dr. Toskas and Dr. Claassens have a constitutional right to a jury trial; a right this Court has previously affirmed. It should again,” said Mocanu, in response to the Office of the Attorney General’s objection to the demand of the doctors to hold a jury trial on Rota.

In 2017, Claassens and Toskas sued RHC and CHCC for compensation for work performed beyond their normal schedules, claiming breach of contract and quantum meruit, a Latin term meaning “what one has earned” or “reasonable value of services.”

The doctors are alleging that CHCC and RHC failed to pay them for administrative leave accruement totaling $635,187. In May 2018, Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho dismissed their claims, saying that no one authorized Claassens and Toskas to obtain additional compensation for working extra hours.

But the doctors appealed and on Aug. 2, 2021, the CNMI Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded the lawsuit for further proceedings.

On Jan. 7, 2022, CHCC and RHC, through Assistant Attorneys General John P. Lowrey and Stephen T. Anson, filed a notice objecting to the plaintiffs’ demand for a jury trial.

“Defendants have not consented to the jury trial demand, and instead conveyed to the Court during the January 4, 2022 status conference that the dispute could be resolved through dispositive motions following the conclusion of discovery,” the government lawyers said.

To clear up any confusion, they added, “defendants file this instant notice to clarify the record that defendants object to plaintiffs’ jury trial demand and that plaintiffs otherwise lack a right to a jury trial for their claims against the Commonwealth.”

According to the government lawyers, “A jury trial is otherwise unavailable to the plaintiffs asserting their specific claims against CHCC under the Commonwealth Code.”

They added, “Claims concerning an express or implied contract with the Commonwealth government are one of the types of actions specified in 7 CMC § 2251(b). 7 CMC § 2251 applies to CHCC as a public corporation to the same extent it applies to the Commonwealth itself 7 CMC § 2211. 7 CMC § 2253 further confirms that all actions brought against the Commonwealth ‘shall be tried by the court without a jury.’”

The Commonwealth “may waive the provisions of 7 CMC § 2253 in a particular case, and may demand a trial by jury to the same extent as a private party would be entitled to do so,” they said.

However, in this instance, “defendants do not waive the certain foregoing provisions of the Commonwealth Code and do not consent to a jury trial,” the government lawyers said.

“To the extent this dispute cannot be resolved through a dispositive motion, it must be resolved at a bench trial instead of a jury trial,” they added.

But in his opposition to the government’s objection to his client’s jury trial demand, Mocanu said this court has found the Government Liability Act’s provision prohibiting a jury trial unconstitutional.

“The court reasoned that purely economic reasons such as protecting the Commonwealth’s coffers and protecting public employment were not compelling enough reasons to withstand a strict scrutiny review. As such the court held that the substitution provision, the prohibition on punitive damages, and the restriction on jury trials were all unconstitutional,” Mocanu said.

The government argued that the Commonwealth has an interest against runaway jury verdicts, which could subject the government to unlimited liability, he said.

“However, the narrow interest of protecting the Commonwealth’s coffers is not protected simply by eliminating jury trials, it is protected by damage caps, prohibiting punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. Here, Dr. Toskas and Dr. Claassens are not claiming punitive damages and did not ask for attorney fees. Instead, all they are asking for is that their case be heard by an impartial jury.”

The government’s stated interest, whether examined under rational basis or strict scrutiny, is moot as the jury can award no more money than this court, Mocanu said.

“The damage caps applicable to this case already solve for the Government’s stated interest in the GLA [or the Government Liability Act]. Having this case tried by this court, as opposed to a jury, has no impact on the Government’s coffers,” the lawyer added.