Dr. Wiznitzer asks two excellent questions.
Can professional societies, in good faith, review the actions of their members and take appropriate action without a realistic threat of a defamation or slander lawsuit? The 2001 Donald C. Austin, MD v. American Association of Neurological Surgeons decision clearly explains judicial support of disciplinary proceedings by professional associations. For example, the opinion stated: [Dr. Austin's] discipline by the Association…served an important public policy…”
The Fullerton and Bundren cases demonstrate there is some risk in filing a complaint with a professional or state association. The subjects of the complaints, in both cases, sued the physicians who filed the complaints, alleging defamation and other injuries. In Fullerton, the state trial court dismissed the lawsuit against the physicians who filed a complaint with the Florida Medical Association, but the appellate court reversed in September 2006; the physicians must now defend defamation, tortuous interference with a business relationship, and other claims. In Bundren, the federal trial court dismissed the lawsuit in June 2006; the decision has not been appealed.
Both cases reveal that there is some risk in filing a complaint with a professional or state association — the subject of the complaint may sue on a variety of legal claims. However, I believe these cases are, by far, the exception and not the rule.
Can professional societies conduct an investigation of the actions of a nonmember just because members file a complaint? I believe professional associations do not have any authority concerning a nonmember, so should not initiate any disciplinary proceedings against a nonmember. The Academy's Grievance Committee will not consider a complaint against a nonmember, and the Academy suspends any disciplinary proceedings against a member who resigns.
AAN General Counsel, St. Paul, MN