Question of fact found on whether an allegedly negligent radiologist was an employee or independent contractor


MRI; hospital; spine

By: Donald Patrick Eckler and Joshua W. Zhao

In Conrads v. Rush-Copley Medical Center, Inc., 2023 IL App (2d) 220455, the Appellate Court of Illinois addressed the factors that a court should consider when determining whether a physician constitutes an employee or an independent contractor. 

On September 19, 2015, Andrea Conrads went to the emergency room at Rush-Copley Medical Center complaining of numbness and weakness in her right lower extremities. She was admitted and underwent an MRI of her spine. Dr. Judge, a radiologist employed by Valley Imaging, interpreted the MRI and reported no abnormalities with Conrads’ aorta. Conrads was discharged, but a week later, reported to the ER at a different hospital where she underwent emergency surgery for an aortic dissection. On September 26, 2015, Conrads and her husband, Axel, filed suit on medical negligence grounds against various defendants including Dr. Judge and Valley Imaging, alleging that Andrea had suffered severe and permanent neurological injuries due to Dr. Judge’s failure to correctly interpret the MRI and spot the signs of aortic dissection.  

Plaintiffs did not allege direct negligence by Valley Imaging but alleged that Valley Imaging was vicariously liable for Dr. Judge’s alleged medical negligence as his employer. On July 15, 2021, Valley Imaging filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Dr. Judge was an independent contractor instead of an employee. Plaintiffs opposed summary judgment, relying on a contract between Rush-Copley and Valley Imaging, a contract between Valley Imaging and Dr. Judge, and Dr Judge’s deposition. On June 7, 2022, the circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Valley Imaging. The court stated that Valley Imaging did not control Dr. Judge because he was not required to work a particular shift nor did Valley Imaging instruct Dr. Judge on his medical judgment or how to do his job. The court also considered that Dr. Judge was paid using a 1099, did not receive other employment benefits and Valley Imaging did not provide the radiological equipment for Dr. Judge. Plaintiffs moved to reconsider, which was denied. Plaintiffs then appealed.   

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that summary judgment was improper as there was a question of fact as to whether Dr. Judge was an employee of Valley Imaging. The appellate court agreed. The court stated that the most important factor to consider in determining an employer-employee relationship is whether the employer had the right to control the manner of the work. The court noted that “the ‘right to control’ in this context encompasses more than the right to instruct a physician regarding how to practice medicine.”  

The court found sufficient evidence to infer that Valley Imaging controlled Dr. Judge’s work as Valley Imaging “effectively was the radiology department at Rush-Copley.” Dr. Judge was only allowed to practice radiology at Rush-Copley at Valley Imaging’s behest and if Valley Imaging terminated Dr. Judge, his practicing privileges at Rush-Copley would end. Dr. Judge reported to the president of Valley Imaging, did not have the freedom to choose which images to read and had to work according to Valley Imaging’s standards and requirements. The contract between Valley Imaging and Dr. Judge contained ambiguity as to the meaning of “shall direct.” The circuit court failed to construe such ambiguity in favor of plaintiffs as the non-moving party. 

The court considered the nature of the work performed, a factor of “great significance” which the circuit court did not consider. The court found that Valley Imaging’s full-time employees and Dr. Judge, in terms of shift coverage were “entirely fungible.” The court also noted that Dr. Judge had the same highly specialized skill set as Valley Imaging’s other physician employees and that Dr. Judge provided services on an ongoing basis rather than on a project-to-project basis. The court also considered that all billing was controlled by Valley Imaging, Valley Imaging provided malpractice insurance for Dr. Judge and supplied the equipment at Rush-Copley which Dr. Judge would lose access to if Valley Imaging terminated him. Even if some factors may favor Dr. Judge being an independent contractor, since Dr. Judge could have reasonably been considered an employee, summary judgment was improper.  

This case emphasizes that whether an employer-employee relationship exists goes beyond whether the hospital controls how the physician practices medicine.     

For more information, please contact Donald Patrick Eckler at patrick.eckler@fmglaw.comJoshua Zhao at, or your local FMG attorney.