ALBANY — The Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in a case that pits Albany’s mayor against the city’s hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, which since March has seen a swell of patients infected with coronavirus.
Albany Mayor Kermit “Bo” Dorough, an attorney, is representing a Johns Creek accountant, Claude Wilson “Will” Geer, in an open records lawsuit filed in 2018 seeking details of certain board meetings Geer claims may show potential conflicts of interest involving Phoebe and how the hospital system set salary amounts for top executives.
The hospital argued those records are exempt from disclosure since they involve a private company, Phoebe Putney Health System, which does not directly own the hospital. It then filed a claim for attorneys’ fees and court costs, which was the subject of Thursday’s Supreme Court hearing.
Dorough called the hospital’s move to file a claim for attorneys’ fees before the open records issues were resolved “heavy-handed” and said it could deter future transparency-focused lawsuits in Georgia.
“This case is about the operation of a community hospital,” Dorough said during Thursday’s hearing. “This is clearly an issue of public concern.”
Frank Middleton, an attorney representing the hospital, said the intent was to protect the hospital from bad-faith lawsuits and was permitted under state law.
“It doesn’t have a chilling effect as Justice [Charles] Bethel raised earlier,” Middleton said, noting language used in a question one of the court’s justices asked during the hearing.
Hearings in the Supreme Court case come as Phoebe continues treating patients for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. Dorough, who was elected mayor in December of last year, rallied behind the hospital as cases spiked in April.
Dougherty County, where Albany is located, figured as the state’s worst COVID-19 hot spot outside Atlanta as the highly contagious respiratory virus swept across the state starting in March.
Fewer coronavirus-positive patients have been admitted to Phoebe in recent weeks, marking a hopeful trend that the virus’ spread is slowing. But as of noon Thursday, the hospital was still treating 75 patients for COVID-19 and was gearing up for a possible spike from upcoming Memorial Day activities.
Geer, who was born in Albany and runs a Facebook page criticizing Phoebe, has alleged the hospital system overcharges for services, has purchased property by improper means and gives top executives “excessive and unwarranted” salaries, according to a 2018 affidavit.
Attorneys for Phoebe have denied hospital administrators engaged in anything improper and have labeled the records requests as “bad faith” on the part of Geer, according to court filings.
A spokesman for Phoebe dismissed Geer’s claims Thursday, noting the hospital compares data with other regional peer hospitals to ensure services are fairly priced.
The spokesman, Ben Roberts, also said board members provide conflict-of-interest disclosures and worked with an outside health care advisory group, SullivanCotters, in setting executive compensation rates.
“It is important to note, the Georgia Supreme Court is taking up a legal technicality in the case you mentioned and is not hearing arguments on the merits of the suit,” Roberts said.