The Appellate Court, in a decision that will be officially released next week, rejected the claims of a former medical resident that his program director owed a “fiduciary duty” to protect that resident’s interests.

In Golek v. Saint Mary’s Hospital, Inc. (download here), the court was asked to review the propriety of a decision by a hospital that conducts an accredited surgical residency training program to decline to promote a senior resident to the position of chief resident.  In all facets of its review, the Court upheld the hospital’s decision.

Much of the decision concerns a review of evidentiary issues and jury instructions. But one facet of the decision should be of note to employers.  It reviewed the appropriate standards as to whether a fiduciary relationship was created; if a relationship is found, that creates a higher standard of care by the fiduciary.

It is well settled that a fiduciary or confidential relationship is characterized by a unique degree of trust and confidence between the parties, one of whom has superior knowledge, skill or expertise and is under a duty to represent the interests of the other. . . . Although this court has refrained from defining a fiduciary relationship in precise detail and in such a manner as to exclude new situations . . . . we have recognized that not all business relationships implicate the duty of a fiduciary. . . . In particular instances, certain relationships, as a matter of law, do not impose upon either party the duty of a fiduciary.

To show this, the court said, requires ‘‘a unique degree of trust and confidence between the parties such that the [defendant] undertook to act primarily for the benefit of the plaintiff.’’

Here, the court rejected the notion of a fiduciary relationship between the resident and program director, noting that the resident is an “adult”. 

[No] fiduciary relationship existed between [the director] and the plaintiff while the parties were negotiating the plaintiff’s role in the surgical residency program. As the [trial] court noted, the plaintiff is an adult who voluntarily became a physician and entered the hospital’s surgical residency program. The plaintiff alleges that … [the] program director, sometimes praised and sometimes criticized the plaintiff’s performance and that he certified surgical residents’ performance records to ACGME. That history does not suffice to establish anything other than a form of a student-teacher relationship. We know of no case, and the plaintiff has cited none, to support the proposition that such a relationship, without something more, was fiduciary in nature…

For employers, understanding claims like this are the best way to avoid such claims in the future. Disclaimers to employees that they are “at-will” and that nothing in an offer letter is intended to alter the employee-employer relationship, are one way to reduce the risk of such claims in the future.