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State ex rel. Healthport Technologies, LLC v. Stucky

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 24, 2017

STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA, EX REL. HEALTHPORT TECHNOLOGIES, LLC and CHARLESTON AREA MEDICAL CENTER, Petitioners
v.
HONORABLE JAMES C. STUCKY, Judge of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, West Virginia; and BASIL CROOKSHANKS, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated, Respondents

          Submitted: May 3, 2017

         Petition for Writ of Prohibition

          Ancil G. Ramey, Esq. Steptoe & Johnson PLLC Huntington, West Virginia Russell D. Jessee, Esq. Devon J. Stewart, Esq. Steptoe & Johnson PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for the Petitioners.

          Edmund L. Wagoner, Esq. David E. Goddard, Esq. Goddard & Wagoner PLLC Clarksburg, West Virginia Counsel for Respondent Basil Crookshanks.

          JUSTICE DAVIS and JUSTICE WORKMAN dissent and reserve the right to file a separate opinion.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "A writ of prohibition will not issue to prevent a simple abuse of discretion by a trial court. It will only issue where the trial court has no jurisdiction or having such jurisdiction exceeds its legitimate powers. W.Va. Code 53-1-1." Syllabus Point 2, State ex rel. Peacher v. Sencindiver, 160 W.Va. 314, 233 S.E.2d 425 (1977).

         2. "Standing is comprised of three elements: First, the party attempting to establish standing must have suffered an "injury-in-fact"-an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent and not conjectural or hypothetical. Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct forming the basis of the lawsuit. Third, it must be likely that the injury will be redressed through a favorable decision of the court." Syllabus Point 5, Findley v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 213 W.Va. 80, 576 S.E.2d 807 (2002).

          KETCHUM JUSTICE

         In this case, a law firm paid an invoice for a copy of a client's medical records. The law firm alleges the per-page-fee for those records was excessive under state law. However, the law firm filed a lawsuit in circuit court over the invoice in the name of the client. As we find below, because the client did not pay the invoice and has suffered no personal loss caused by the allegedly illegal fee, the client cannot show an injury in fact. The client, therefore, did not have standing to pursue the lawsuit. Consequently, we grant a writ of prohibition and direct the circuit court to dismiss the lawsuit without prejudice.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 2015, respondent Basil Crookshanks had abdominal surgery for a perforated bowel. In his recovery, he was a patient in a nursing home. Mr. Crookshanks alleges that the nursing home used unsterilized tools to treat his wound causing him to develop significant infections and sepsis. Thereafter, he was evacuated from the nursing home by helicopter for inpatient treatment at a hospital owned by the petitioner, Charleston Area Medical Center ("CAMC").

         Mr. Crookshanks retained a law firm to investigate a potential malpractice claim against the nursing home. The law firm's contract was on a contingent basis: the firm would pay all litigation expenses (as permitted by the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct) and would only receive a fee, and be reimbursed for its expenses, if there was a recovery on Mr. Crookshanks's behalf.

         The law firm made a request to CAMC for a copy of Mr. Crookshanks's medical records. Petitioner HealthPort Technologies, LLC ("HealthPort"), responded for CAMC and sent an invoice to the law firm demanding $4, 463.43, or 55 cents per page plus sales tax and shipping costs for the medical records. The law firm paid the invoice. However, the invoice troubled the law firm for two reasons: another major West Virginia hospital had charged the law firm $3.57 to copy a similar medical record; and the law firm itself spends approximately 1.4 cents per page for copying.

         On October 15, 2015, Mr. Crookshanks filed a class action lawsuit against HealthPort and CAMC over the 55-cent-per-page fee for his medical records. First, Mr. Crookshanks alleged that the fee was not based on the actual cost of labor and supplies, as required by state law, [1] and therefore that HealthPort and CAMC were acting in violation of law. Second, Mr. Crookshanks asserted (upon information and belief) that other similarly-situated individuals requested their records from CAMC and other West Virginia healthcare providers; that HealthPort filled those requests; and that HealthPort charged those individuals excessive fees in violation of state law. In his complaint, Mr. Crookshanks asked the circuit court to certify his case as a class action.[2]

         HealthPort and CAMC moved for summary judgment on the ground that, because Mr. Crookshanks's claims were not ripe, he did not have standing to pursue his claim. In discovery, Mr. Crookshanks admitted that he did not pay the invoice to obtain copies of his medical records. Instead, the law firm he retained paid the invoice. Additionally, Mr. Crookshanks has not reimbursed the law firm, and the contract with his lawyers specified that he would only be liable for the expense of the medical records if he recovers from a medical malpractice defendant. HealthPort and CAMC asked the circuit court to dismiss Mr. Crookshanks's claims without prejudice.

         In an order dated December 14, 2016, the circuit court denied the motion for summary judgment, and found that Mr. Crookshanks could pursue a claim for the allegedly excessive costs of the medical records. On January 13, 2017, HealthPort and CAMC petitioned this Court for a writ of prohibition to ...


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