Stephen D. Wesbrook, Ph.D., Plaintiff-Appellant,
Karl J. Ulrich, M.D., and Edward A. Belongia, M.D., Defendants-Appellees.
September 8, 2016
from the United States District Court for the Western
District of Wisconsin. No. 13-cv-494-wmc - William M. Conley,
Wood, Chief Judge, and Kanne and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.
Hamilton, Circuit Judge.
appeal presents issues under Wisconsin law on the scope of
tort remedies a fired at-will employee might have not against
his employer but against individual supervisors and
co-workers. Plaintiff Dr. Stephen Wesbrook, a former employee
of the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, brought this
lawsuit against Dr. Edward Belongia, a former colleague, and
Dr. Karl Ulrich, the chief executive officer of the
Marshfield Clinic. Wesbrook contends that Belongia and Ulrich
tortiously interfered with his at-will employment,
engineering his termination by publishing defamatory
statements about him to the Marshfield Clinic board of
district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.
Wesbrook has appealed. Wisconsin tort law governs this case,
which is within the federal courts' diversity
jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The undisputed
facts show that the defendants' statements about the
plaintiff were true or substantially true and therefore
privileged. Under Wisconsin law, an at-will employee cannot
recover from former co-workers and supervisors for tortious
interference on the basis of their substantially truthful
statements made within the enterprise, no matter the motives
underlying those statements. We therefore affirm the judgment
of the district court.
Factual and Procedural Background
review de novo the district court's grant of
summary judgment to the defendants. Boston v. U.S. Steel
Corp., 816 F.3d 455, 462 (7th Cir. 2016). To prevail on
summary judgment, the defendants must show that there is no
"genuine dispute as to any material fact" and that
they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Like the district court, we must construe
all evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of
the non-moving party, plaintiff Wesbrook. See Woods v.
City of Berwyn, 803 F.3d 865, 869 (7th Cir. 2015).
case arises from strategic disagreements and a power struggle
within the Marshfield Clinic, a prominent not-for-profit
health care system headquartered in Marshfield, Wisconsin. At
all relevant times, defendant Ulrich served as president and
chief executive officer of the Clinic and as a member of its
board of directors. One of the Clinic's divisions is the
Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation ("the Research
Foundation"), which is the largest private medical
research institute in Wisconsin. During the years in
question, Dr. Humberto Vidaillet served as director of the
Research Foundation. Plaintiff Wesbrook was deputy director
from 2006 until his termination took effect January 2, 2012.
Defendant Belongia was also employed at the Research
Foundation as a senior research scientist and research center
Conflict at the Research Foundation
in the district court narrowed Wesbrook's allegations
against Ulrich and Belongia to a claim for tortious
interference with his employment based on four statements
that Ulrich published to the Clinic's board of directors:
(1) Wesbrook coerced Research Foundation employees he
supervised; (2) some Research Foundation employees filed
complaints against Wesbrook; (3) Wesbrook breached a
performance improvement plan; and (4) a prominent supporter
of the Clinic spoke with over forty people associated with
the Clinic and the Research Foundation, many of whom
complained about Wesbrook. As explained below, each of these
statements was substantially true, but some further factual
background is needed to understand this litigation and the
implications of the parties' legal positions.
tenure as deputy director of the Research Foundation was
marked by internal conflict. Problems first surfaced during
his candidacy for the deputy position. One member of the
interview committee remarked: "I would be reluctant to
hire someone who has so clearly and dramatically polarized
the basic scientists that constitute the 'core' of
the research organization." (Wesbrook was then already
known to the committee; he had worked at the Research
Foundation previously from 2000 to 2005.) Another employee
threatened to resign if Wesbrook were rehired and followed
through on that threat shortly after Wesbrook returned.
Wesbrook had a good working relationship with his immediate
supervisor, Vidaillet, his relationship with Ul-rich was
stormy. Ulrich wanted to change the Clinic's
organizational structure. On several occasions between May
2008 and September 2011, Ulrich tried but failed to reduce
the independence of the Research Foundation's board of
trustees and to transfer oversight of the Research
Foundation's endowment to the Clinic's executive
leadership. Collaborating with Vidaillet and the Research
Foundation's trustees, Wesbrook helped defeat these
2008, Ulrich also circulated a shareholder proposal to switch
the Clinic from its democratic, physician-led governance
structure to a more conventional corporate model. According
to Vidaillet, the proposal would have resulted in
Ulrich's automatic selection as interim CEO, a position
that would have given him substantial influence over
appointments of new board members. Vidaillet vigorously
opposed Ulrich's plan, and he recruited Wesbrook to help
his campaign against it. Ulrich's proposal was defeated,
as were similar proposals in 2009 and 2011.
undisputed evidence also shows conflict and tension within
the Research Foundation where Wesbrook was deputy director.
In March 2010, an employee alerted David Keefe, director of
human resources, that Wesbrook and Vidaillet had been making
derogatory comments about Research Foundation scientists,
prompting some of them to resign. Then another employee
alerted the Research Foundation's board of trustees that
fifteen scientists had left the foundation since 2006. On
April 13, 2010, the Clinic's board of directors asked the
human resources department to investigate why the fifteen
scientists had left and whether there was a "culture of
intimidation" at the Research Foundation.
investigated. He spoke with nine of the fifteen scientists
who had left the Research Foundation. In response to
open-ended questions, several described Wesbrook's
management style using words such as "cold,
militaristic, harsh, retaliatory, abusive, negative, hostile,
confrontational, out of control, threatening, boot-camp-like,
and contentious." While Keefe was investigating, other
employees brought additional concerns to Ulrich's
attention. One research scientist told Ul-rich that
Wesbrook's management style was "oppressive"
and that he "retaliated against scientists who
questioned or disagreed with his decisions." Another
scientist described Wesbrook as "intimidating and
vindictive" and blamed Wesbrook for creating a
"toxic" environment. An emeritus research clinician
told Ulrich that employees found Wesbrook "intimidating
and demeaning" and that they "feared retribution if
they said anything that was contrary" to Wesbrook.
scheduled a meeting with Wesbrook for September 2, 2010. He
planned to address Wesbrook's management style and the
possible consequences of his behavior. On the morning of the
scheduled meeting, Ulrich notified Vidaillet (Wesbrook's
immediate supervisor) about his intentions for the meeting.
Vidaillet then told Wesbrook to take the day off, and
Wesbrook did so. In light of the complaints about Wesbrook
and his absence from the meeting, Ulrich fired Wesbrook.
However, at Vidaillet's behest, and by the narrow vote of
nine to eight, the Clinic's board of directors overruled
Ulrich and reinstated Wesbrook on September 7, 2010.
Wesbrook narrowly avoided termination in 2010, students of
organizational behavior will not be surprised to learn that
tensions at the Research Foundation continued to simmer. In
March 2011, three administrators of the foundation's
research centers complained to Keefe in human resources about
Wesbrook's micromanagement and his pattern of
retaliation. In July, a veteran research scientist resigned
because she "wanted to get away from Dr. Wesbrook."
Another scientist resigned that same month. Before leaving,
he spoke with Belongia about the administrative environment
at the Research Foundation, which he characterized as
"increasingly adversarial" and plagued by
"conflict, inaction, and dysfunction."