Threat of lawsuit prompts editor to dig into complainant’s past

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Ron Shinkman

Ron Shinkman

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to face a lawsuit over a story you’ve written, you’ll want to read how Ron Shinkman responded when a source threatened to sue.

The editor and publisher of Payers & Providers, a newsletter in Los Angeles, Shinkman got the phone call we all dread. On the line that day in March 2012 was Jeannette Martello, MD.., a plastic surgeon Shinkman had covered when the California Department of Managed Health Care enjoined her from balance billing her patients.

As Shinkman writes in a new How I did It, the article was a just-the-facts brief based on a report the insurance regulator issued.

As anyone would be in this situation, Shinkman was nervous. After all, Payers & Providers is a small group of regional health care business publications he founded in 2009. It does not have the deep pockets of his larger competitors.

But what Shinkman does have is some legal training in his background and more than 20 years as a journalist. With some digging, he discovered that Martello had a history of suing her own patients. In fact, Shinkman found Martello had filed 70 lawsuits in Superior and Small Claims courts in Los Angeles County against her patients. By looking through court and lien records, Shinkman uncovered many of Martello’s patients-turned-lawsuit defendants who became sources in a report he wrote for Payers & Providers: “The Many Stories of One Highly Litigious Physician. Surgeon Treats Patients at Southern California ERs–Then Sues Them” (PDF).

Following up on Shinkman’s report, Anna Gorman, then at the Los Angeles Times, wrote a story about Martello that ran on page one on Aug. 17, 2012: “State suing doctor over billing tactics.” Such coverage spread the word about Shinkman’s work, so that later that year his article was a finalist for an award from the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation.

I won’t give away how this story ends. You’ll have to read Shinkman’s account for that. But I will say this: His advice about what to do if you’re ever threatened with a lawsuit. “Check it out,” he writes. “You might be pleased with the results.”

One thought on “Threat of lawsuit prompts editor to dig into complainant’s past

  1. Terry Griffin

    Nicely done Mr. Shinkman. I’d have ignored the doc b/c the claim is bizarre: news outlets should not write about the DMHC notice telling the doc to quit balance billing. Wait, but that’s exactly what news reports; and it’s not slander or libel or restraint of trade, or anything else.

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