Monday, January 15, 2018
Filial Friday on Monday: PA Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Further Appeal of "Reverse" Filial Support Case
Regular readers of this Blog will remember that we have been following the case of Melmark Inc. v. Schutt, wherein a residential facility for disabled children and adults in Pennsylvania, has sought to hold 70+ year-old New Jersey parents liable for approximately 13 months of care the facility provided for their autistic adult son after New Jersey stopped public payments for his support. The parents were successful at the trial and intermediate courts of appeal in Pennsylvania, arguing that New Jersey, not Pennsylvania law controlled the issue of any filial obligation. Pennsylvania statutory law imposes liability on certain family members, without regard to age, to cover costs of care provided to "indigent" children or parents, while New Jersey's filial support statute limits obligations for older adults, for "any person 55 years or over," to support for minor children or spouses. See N.J.S.A. Section 44:1-140(c) (Relatives Chargeable). The unpaid costs in question totaled more than $200,000, before the Melmark took it upon itself to take the son back to New Jersey, dropping him off at a local hospital.
On December 26, 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the facility's request for further appeal on the following issues:
1. Whether the Superior Court erred as a matter of law in finding that New Jersey’s filial support statute, rather than Pennsylvania’s, applied
in this matter where there is no conflict between the New Jersey statute and Pennsylvania’s statute under the facts of this case?
2. Whether the Superior Court erred in finding that New Jersey has a greater interest in the application of its filial support statute where, inter alia, all of the relevant contacts, with the exception of the residency of Respondents Clarence and Barbara Schutt, are with Pennsylvania; where the Schutts took affirmative actions to keep their highly disabled son in a Pennsylvania nonprofit residential and therapeutic institution, Petitioner Melmark, Inc., with the avowed aim of Melmark funding his care for his “entire life,” including manipulating the Pennsylvania and New Jersey legal systems to prevent his return to New Jersey; and where the Superior Court’s decision results in Melmark being entirely uncompensated for providing an extended period of vital, intensive care for the Schutts’ son?
3. Whether the Superior Court erred in finding that the lower court properly denied relief on Melmark's claims for quantum meruit and unjust enrichment?
I've been teaching Conflicts of Law for many years and I actually used a variation on this problem for the final exam in my Fall 2017 course. As was true in the lower courts in the Melmark case, most of my students came to the conclusion that under the forum's choice of law rules, the state with the most substantial relationship to the issue of parental liability for statutory support was the state where the parents and son were residents, here New Jersey.
My best guess is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may go more deeply into the common law claims for "quantum meruit and unjust enrichment" (which in Pennsylvania are usually treated as alternative names for the same causes of action, sometimes termed "quasi-contract" claims).
As I've been saying for months now, this is a tough case for everyone.