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State ex rel. West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. v. Gaujot

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 5, 2019

STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA ex rel. WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY HOSPITALS, INC., AND WEST VIRGINIA UNITED HEALTH SYSTEM, INC., Petitioners
v.
THE HONORABLE PHILLIP D. GAUJOT, JUDGE OF THE CIRCUIT COURT OF MONONGALIA COUNTY, CHRISTOPHER THOMACK, AND JOSEPH MICHAEL JENKINS, Respondents

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDING IN PROHIBITION WRIT GRANTED AS MOULDED

          Submitted: February 5, 2019

          Marc E. Williams, Esq. Alexander L. Turner, Esq. Christopher D. Smith, Esq. Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP Huntington, West Virginia Christine S. Vaglienti, Esq. West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. Morgantown, West Virginia Counsel for the Petitioners

          David E. Goddard, Esq. Edmund L. Wagoner, Esq. Goddard & Wagoner Clarksburg, West Virginia Christopher J. Regan, Esq. Laura P. Pollard, Esq. Bordas & Bordas PLLC Wheeling, West Virginia David J. Romano, Esq. Jennifer L. Finch, Esq. Romano Law Offices Clarksburg, West Virginia Counsel for Christopher Thomack and Joseph Michael Jenkins, on their own behalf and on behalf of all similarly situated persons consisting of a class of aggrieved persons

          CHIEF JUSTICE WALKER, deeming herself disqualified, did not participate.

          JUSTICE WORKMAN, deeming herself disqualified, did not participate.

          JUDGE REEDER, sitting by temporary assignment.

          JUDGE REGER, sitting by temporary assignment.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "A class action may only be certified if the trial court is satisfied, after a thorough analysis, that the prerequisites of Rule 23(a) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied." Syl. Pt. 8 (in part), State ex rel. Chemtall Inc. v. Madden, 216 W.Va. 443, 607 S.E.2d 772 (2004) (italics added).

         2. For purposes of Rule 23(a)(2) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [2017], "a 'question' 'common to the class' must be a dispute, either of fact or of law, the resolution of which will advance the determination of the class members' claims." Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 369, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2562, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011) (Ginsburg concurring in part and dissenting in part) (emphasis added).

         3. For commonality to exist under Rule 23(a)(2) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [2017], class members' "claims must depend upon a common contention[, ]" and that contention "must be of such a nature that it is capable of classwide resolution[.]" Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 350, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2551, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011). In other words, the issue of law (or fact) in question must be one whose "determination . . . will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke." Id. (emphasis added).

         4. "When a circuit court is evaluating a motion for class certification under Rule 23 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [1998], the dispositive question is not whether the plaintiff has stated a cause of action or will prevail on the merits, but rather whether the requirements of Rule 23 have been met." Syl. Pt. 7, In re W.Va. Rezulin Litig., 214 W.Va. 52, 585 S.E.2d 52 (2003).

         5. Determining whether the requirements of Rule 23 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [2017] have been met often involves, by necessity, some "coincidental" consideration of the merits. Gariety v. Grant Thornton, LLP, 368 F.3d 356, 366 (4th Cir. 2004).

         6. "[C]lass determination generally involves considerations that are enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff[]s['] cause of action." Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 569 U.S. 27, 34, 133 S.Ct. 1426, 1432, 185 L.Ed.2d 515 (2013) (cleaned up).

         7. "Merits questions may be considered to the extent-but only to the extent-that they are relevant to determining whether the Rule 23 prerequisites for class certification are satisfied." Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Ret. Plans & Tr. Funds, 568 U.S. 455, 466, 133 S.Ct. 1184, 1195, 185 L.Ed.2d 308 (2013).

         8. When consideration of questions of merit is essential to a thorough analysis of whether the prerequisites of Rule 23 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [2017] for class certification are satisfied, failing to undertake such consideration is clear error and an abuse of discretion.

          Armstead, Justice.

         This case is before the Court on a petition for writ of prohibition. Respondent Phillip D. Gaujot, Judge of the Circuit Court of Monongalia County, certified a class action against Petitioners, West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. ("WVUH"), and West Virginia United Health System, Inc. ("WVUHS" and, together with WVUH, the "Hospitals"). Judge Gaujot named Respondents Christopher Thomack and Joseph Michael Jenkins as lead plaintiffs. The Hospitals later moved to decertify the class, and Judge Gaujot denied their motion. The Hospitals believe that Judge Gaujot erred, and they ask this Court to prohibit him from conducting any further proceedings until he has vacated his order denying their motion to decertify the class.

         Based on the record before us, the arguments of the parties, and the applicable law, we find that the circuit court exceeded its jurisdiction by failing to conduct a sufficiently thorough analysis of whether the commonality required for class certification under Rule 23 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure is present. Accordingly, we grant the writ of prohibition as moulded, vacate the circuit court's order denying the Hospitals' motion to decertify the class, and remand this case for further actions consistent with this opinion.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 2012, Mr. Thomack and Mr. Jenkins were injured in separate accidents. They were treated at Ruby Memorial Hospital. Each hired an attorney to seek damages for his injuries, and each attorney requested copies of his client's medical records. Mr. Thomack alleges that WVUHS charged his attorney $514.40 for his medical records. Mr. Jenkins says that WVUHS charged his attorney $656.80. WVUHS arrived at these fees by charging "40 cents per page" plus an additional $10.00 fee for "[p]rocessing." WVUHS charged by the page, though it provided the records as images on a computer disc.

         Mr. Thomack and Mr. Jenkins believe that these fees were illegal. On January 18, 2013, Mr. Thomack sued WVUH in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County.[1]Later, on June 27, 2013, Mr. Jenkins sued WVUHS[2] in the Circuit Court of Harrison County. Each plaintiff sued individually and as the (would be) representative of a class of similarly situated persons. Their cases were subsequently consolidated in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County.

         On or about January 9, 2014, after consolidation, Mr. Thomack and Mr. Jenkins filed a consolidated and amended class action complaint against the Hospitals in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County. The consolidated complaint's central allegation is that the Hospitals violated W.Va. Code § 16-29-2(a) [1999] by "charg[ing] Plaintiffs $0.40 'per page' for copies of their already existing medical records[.]"

         In October 2013-before consolidation-Mr. Thomack moved for class certification under Rule 23. The Hospitals opposed the motion in a memorandum filed in March 2014, after consolidation. They argued that a "fact intensive, case-by-case analysis . . . will be required to determine whether the fees imposed by WVUH and paid by each class member were, in fact, reasonable or unreasonable." They supported this argument with an affidavit from Melissa Martin, WVUH's director of health information management and chief privacy officer. In her affidavit, Ms. Martin described a variety of "electronic and/or physical storage systems" that must be searched when WVUH responds to a records request.

         Ms. Martin also described what happens after the records have been located. She reported that medical records "are extracted and copied into a production system[.]"[3]Then "a WVUH technician manually inspects the document bundle to ensure that the production complies with the scope of the request and that no images are duplicates or illegible." She explained that this inspection process "can be very time consuming" because mental health information enjoys special protection and may be embedded in other records. Because of this concern, employees must actually "read the medical records" (emphasis added). Once this inspection is complete, WVUH counts the number of images and invoices the person who requested them. When WVUH ...


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