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Wilson v. Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 7, 2017

Robert Lance Wilson, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, et al, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued February 15, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 14 C 10521 - Rebecca R. Pallmeyer, Judge.

          Before Bauer, Easterbrook, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Easterbrook, Circuit Judge.

         In September 1998 one of Dr. Robert Lance Wilson's terminally ill patients was within hours of death. He was in pain (morphine no longer worked for him) and suffocating but had refused to have a breathing tube inserted. Wilson concluded that the only possible palliation was unconsciousness. As Wilson was injecting a drug to achieve that objective, the patient's heart stopped. Wilson's travails then began.

         The coroner classified the patient's death as murder, and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation summarily suspended Wilson's medical license. He replied that his treatment was medically appropriate and demanded a hearing. According to Wilson, whose account we must accept for current purposes, the Department's top administrators were unconcerned about the propriety of the treatment, unwilling to learn about that subject, and personally offended when Wilson wanted a hearing. Wilson submits that they decided to kick him out of the profession without regard to the evidence.

         It took the Department until March 2000 to hold any kind of hearing. By then the coroner's finding of homicide had been withdrawn and a criminal prosecutor had decided not to charge Wilson. But, according to Wilson, the Department's hearing was a farce with a foreordained outcome. His license was suspended for five years, retroactive to October 1998. He contested this result on two fronts: suits in both state and federal court.

         The federal suit began in October 1999, before the Department held a hearing. The Department asked the federal judge to dismiss the suit, and the judge abstained under the doctrine of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), which the Supreme Court has applied to state civil and administrative proceedings in which units of state government attempt to implement state policies. Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434 (1977). The Department wanted the federal judge to dismiss Wilson's suit rather than stay it pending the outcome of the state litigation; the federal judge obliged.

         The Department did not fare so well in state court. Four times a state judge vacated the Department's decision. After each of the first three, the Department reinstated its decision and the litigation continued. The Department's decision after the March 2000 hearing was set aside in April 2002, on two procedural grounds, by the Circuit Court of Cook County. The Appellate Court affirmed with respect to one of those grounds. Wilson v. Department of Professional Regulation, 344 Ill.App.3d 897 (2003). Wilson remained subject to the summary suspension of 1998. Without offering Wilson a new hearing, a state administrative law judge made new findings in November 2006, and the Department entered a new five-year suspension in July 2007. It did not explain why the five years hadn't already expired.

         In May 2008 the Circuit Court set aside this new suspension, again on grounds of procedural irregularity. The Department did not appeal, but at the new hearing the ALJ struck some testimony that had previously been allowed. The Department's third decision, dated July 2009, again suspended Wilson for five years, without credit for the 11 years that he had already been suspended. This third decision was set aside in July 2011; the Circuit Court found, for a third time, that procedural irregularities vitiated the decision. The Department did not appeal but entered a fourth suspension decision in April 2013, yet again for five extra years. Wilson's renewed contest in state court led to a definitive decision in his favor. The Circuit Court held in May 2014 that the evidence did not support suspension-that Wilson should not have been suspended for even one day, let alone more than 15 years. Indeed, in 2002 the deceased patient's estate had abandoned a civil suit filed against Wilson, so he was not determined to have committed malpractice, let alone murder. The Department did not appeal.

         Thus ended the state litigation. But the Department did not reinstate Wilson's license to practice medicine. In January 2016 it sent him a letter stating that, because by then he had not practiced during the last 17 years, he must complete a "graduate medical education program of at least 3 years in length" (emphasis added) before submitting to tests to determine whether he is fit to practice. In other words, the Department has taken the view that the Circuit Court's decision did not restore Wilson to practice, and that, even though he should not have been suspended, he must go back to school pretty much as if he had never had a medical education in the first place.

         Late in 2014 Wilson returned to federal court, seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for suspension without a hearing and the ensuing lengthy inability to practice his profession. Because state disciplinary proceedings and litigation have ended, Younger no longer requires abstention. But Wilson's second federal suit followed his first out the door. In 1999 a district judge ruled that Wilson had commenced suit too soon and must wait for the end of the state's administrative proceedings. In 2016 a different district judge ruled that Wilson had commenced suit too late-that the two-year statute of limitations applicable to §1983 suits in Illinois had been running since fall 1998 (when Wilson's license was suspended without a hearing) and had expired in 2000. 2016 U.S. Dist. Lexis 35092 (N.D. 111. Mar. 18, 2016). The district court failed to enter a proper final decision, but its order is appealable under the rationale of Otis v. Chicago, 29 F.3d 1159 (7th Cir. 1994) (en banc).

         Aggrieved at being told that no suit, whenever filed, is permissible, Wilson's appellate lawyer contends that the doctrine of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), comes to his rescue. Heck holds that a prisoner cannot use §1983 to challenge the validity of his conviction or to obtain other relief that necessarily implies the conviction's invalidity. Instead, the Court stated, any §1983 litigation must be deferred until the conviction has been set aside by appeal, collateral review, or pardon. The Court added that as long as the custody lasts, the statute of limitations does not run: "a §1983 cause of action for damages attributable to an unconstitutional conviction or sentence does not accrue until the conviction or sentence has been invalidated." 512 U.S. at 489-90. Heck was extended to prison disciplinary proceedings in Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997). Wilson contends that we should further extend Heck to professional disciplinary proceedings.

         The problem with that proposal lies in the rationale of Heck. The Court based its analysis on the doctrine that damages actions cannot be used to contest custody. When the writ of habeas corpus (or a statutory substitute such as 28 U.S.C. §§ 2254 and 2255) is available, it is also exclusive. Preiser v. Rodriguez,411 U.S. 475 (1973). More: State prisoners who want collateral relief in federal court must exhaust their state remedies. 28 U.S.C. §2254(b)(1); Rose v. Lundy,455 U.S. 509 (1982). But a federal challenge to a decision by a state's administrative agency is not subject to the requirement that collateral remedies are exclusive or to an exhaustion-of-remedies rule. Nonprisoners need not exhaust state remedies before suing under §1983. Patsy v. Board of Regents,457 U.S. 496 ...

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