Monday, April 7, 2014

Causation Proof Needed for Breach of Contract Claims Against "Responsible Parties" in Nursing Home Cases

We have another interesting appellate decision from Connecticut on the question of personal liability of an individual who signed an agreement as a "responsible party" when admitting his parent to a nursing home.  The opinion is in Meadowbrook Center, Inc. v. Buchman, issued by the Connecticut Court of Appeals with a decision date of April 8, 2014. 

The majority of the three judge panel concludes that the son who signed the agreement cannot be held liable, based on the evidence -- or rather lack of evidence -- in the record.  Although the evidence establishes the son failed to provide all information requested by the state Medicaid department following his mother's application for Medicaid, and therefore breached duties he assumed as a "responsible party" under Section IV of the nursing home agreement, the majority concludes he cannot be held liable because there "is no evidence in the record...indicating that, had the defendant [son] complied with his obligations under the agreement, [the nursing home] would have received any Medicaid payments." 

In other words, the nursing home proved breach, but not causation of damages, even though "the parties stipulated...that if the department granted Medicaid benefits to the defendant's mother, the department would have paid the facility $47,561.18."  The ruling focuses on that "if," noting: 

"The testimonial evidence submitted to the court demonstrated, on the one hand, that submitting the proper information to the department merely triggered a review of the resident's eligibility and, on the other hand, the submission of such information was not a guarantee of approval to receive such benefits.... [A]n eligibility services supervisor at the department...testified that the department could not determine whether an applicant qualified for Medicaid absent a review of the applicant's financial information, which was not furnished to the department in the present case. As the defendant notes in his appellate brief, the plaintiff did not ask Leveque 'if, based upon the defendant's testimony regarding the assets maintained by [his mother], he had an opinion regarding whether ... [she] would have qualified for [such] benefits.' In addition, the record before us does not indicate that the plaintiff was prevented from presenting the proper financial documentation, expert testimony, or other evidence that would have otherwise established the resident's likelihood of approval, nor has the plaintiff in this appeal directed our attention to any such evidence."

There is a complicated history to third-party liability issues in nursing home contracts, especially in Connecticut.  As readers of our Blog may recall, last year the Connecticut Supreme Court declined to hold a signing family member liable for costs of the parent's care, where that individual did not have a Power of Attorney or other authority to apply for Medicaid.  See "Nursing Home Contracts Revisited: The Nutmeg State Adds Spice," commenting on Aaron Manor, Inc. v. Irving, 57 A.3d 342 (Conn. 2013).  Further, as we note in that post, Connecticut made significant changes to its Medicaid laws effective in October 2013, as a result of a series of nursing home cases involving third-parties.  In certain circumstances, Connecticut now seeks to impose statutory liability on individuals who are either transferors or transferees, connected to the resident's ineligibility for Medicaid because of disqualifying transfers.

The Meadowbrook decision is also well worth reading for anyone interested in the related but separate concepts of contract law and promissory estoppel. 

Further, in a separate concurring opinion, a third judge concludes that the nursing home agreement should not be construed as imposing liability unless the "responsible party" has been shown to have misappropriated the resident's resources, because without that personal fault, the responsible party agreement becomes a "guaranty," prohibited by federal Medicaid law. The majority, however, "strongly" rejects that analysis.  We'll keep our eyes open to see if the Meadowbrook case goes to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

When I first began analyzing "responsible party" liability in nursing home contracts, I became convinced the contracts drafted by many facilities created a minefield of problems.  In some instances, the providers seem to intentionally blur the lines of responsibility for third-parties.   On the one hand, facilities "need" agents to sign for new residents who are often lacking capacity to contract.  So the admissions office points to the "no personal liability" language in the agreement signed by the third-party.  On the other hand, if something does go wrong with the Medicaid application, that same facility will often be quick to point out that it is the third-party signer's obligation to fix the problem, or face potential personal liability. 

The nursing homes, of course, whether for profit 0r nonprofit, are not in the business of providing free care. 

The last ten years of litigation have only increased the importance for individuals to understand the significance of nursing home agreements.  Individuals may want legal advice from specialists in state Medicaid law before signing the agreement; further they may need to seek legal help again if there is any hiccup in the Medicaid application process. After the Meadowbrook case, I think it is safe to say care facilities will be better prepared to prove causation of damages.     

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