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Martin v. Rolling Hills Hospital, LLC

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

June 22, 2018

MELISSA MARTIN, ET AL.
v.
ROLLING HILLS HOSPITAL, LLC, ET AL.

          Session December 7, 2017

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. 2016-8 Michael W. Binkley, Judge

         This is an appeal in a health care liability action from the dismissal of the action for Plaintiffs' failure to comply with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(2)(E) when they failed to provide the Defendants with HIPAA compliant authorizations for release of medical records. The trial court held that, as a result of the failure, Plaintiffs were not entitled to an extension of the one-year statute of limitations for bringing suit and the action was barred. Plaintiffs appeal. Upon our review, we find that Plaintiffs substantially complied with the requirements of section 29-26-121 and that the Defendants have not shown that they were prejudiced by the deficiencies in the authorizations; accordingly, we reverse the decision of the trial court and remand the case for further proceedings.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Case Remanded

          Trudy Bloodworth, Nashville, Tennessee; and Dawn M. Smith, Dallas, Texas, Pro Hac Vice, for the appellants, Melissa Martin, Camden J.H., Anthony J.H., and James Harrison.

          Edward A. Hadley, Linda A. Nathenson, and Matthew J. Buchbinder, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Matthew Karl, M.D.

          Ashley D. Cleek, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellees, Rolling Hills Hospital, LLC and Universal Health Services, Inc.

          Richard H. Dinkins, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which, Andy D. Bennett and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          RICHARD H. DINKINS, JUDGE

         This is a health care liability action arising out of the death of Chelsey Elizabeth Kay Helwig on June 28, 2013. Ms. Helwig had been admitted to Rolling Hills Hospital on June 26 for specialized in-patient psychiatric care, specifically, for treatment for suicidal ideation and detoxification from opiates, benzodiazepines, alcohol, and cocaine. On the morning of June 28, she was found unresponsive in her room; staff unsuccessfully attempted to resuscitate her, and she was transferred to Vanderbilt Medical Center, where she died later that day.

         The Plaintiffs in this case are: Chelsey Helwig's father, James Harrison, and Melissa Martin, Chelsey Helwig's mother, suing on behalf of herself, the Estate of Chelsey Elizabeth Helwig, and her surviving minor children. The first complaint was filed on October 17, 2014, and named Rolling Hills Hospital, LLC ("Rolling Hills"), Universal Health Services, Inc. ("Universal"), the owner of Rolling Hills, and Matthew Karl, M.D., as defendants; the action was voluntarily dismissed on January 27, 2015.

         Plaintiffs filed a new action naming the same defendants on January 7, 2016. On January 28, Rolling Hills and Universal jointly moved to dismiss the suit; on March 4, Dr. Karl joined in the motion filed January 28. Defendants argued that, due to Plaintiffs' failure to comply with provisions of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121, they "were not entitled to the 120-day extension of the applicable statute of limitations that would otherwise have been afforded by [section 29-26-121(c)]," and, consequently, the suit which had been filed October 17, 2014, was barred by the one year statute of limitations at section 29-26-116(a)(1). Defendants argued further that, inasmuch as the first complaint was not timely filed, Plaintiffs could not rely on the savings statute at Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-105 to render the second complaint timely filed, and that the second action should be dismissed pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6).

         Following a hearing, the court entered a Memorandum and Order dismissing the case as to all defendants; the court concluded that: (1) Defendants were not prejudiced by Plaintiffs' noncompliance with pre-suit notice requirements; (2) Plaintiffs were not entitled to the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations under section 29-26-121(c) because they failed to substantially comply with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(2)(E), and the complaint filed October 17, 2014, was therefore time-barred; (3) as a consequence, the complaint filed January 7, 2016, was dismissed. Plaintiffs appeal, raising the following issues for our review:

1. Whether the trial court erred in finding the Plaintiffs were not entitled to Tennessee Code Annotated Section 29-26-121(c)'s 120-day extension of the statute of limitations, and the first complaint was therefore time-barred.
2. Whether the trial court erred in determining the Plaintiffs failed to substantially comply with Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-26-121(a)(2)(E) when they provided Defendants with HIPAA authorizations that failed to include the mother's authority to sign the document, the expiration date of the document, and the names of all healthcare providers authorized to use or disclose the requested information.

         Defendants raise the following issues:

1. Whether the trial court erred in determining the Plaintiffs substantially complied with Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-26-121(a)(3)(B)(ii) prior to filing the original complaint when the Plaintiffs failed to serve the Defendants registered agent with pre-suit notice.
2. Whether the trial court erred in determining the Plaintiffs substantially complied with Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-26-121(a)(2)(D) when the Plaintiffs failed to provide the Defendants with a complete list of each healthcare provider that received notice.

         I. ANALYSIS

         Generally, a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12.02(6) challenges only the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not the strength of the plaintiff's proof or evidence. Highwoods Props., Inc. v. City of Memphis, 297 S.W.3d 695, 700 (Tenn. 2009); Willis v. Tenn. Dep't of Corr., 113 S.W.3d 706, 710 (Tenn. 2003). The resolution of such a motion is determined by an examination of the pleadings alone. Leggett v. Duke Energy Corp., 308 S.W.3d 843, 851 (Tenn. 2010); Trau-Med of Am., Inc. v. Allstate Ins. Co., 71 S.W.3d 691, 696 (Tenn. 2002). A defendant who files a motion to dismiss "'admits the truth of all of the relevant and material allegations contained in the complaint, but . . . asserts that the allegations fail to establish a cause of action.'" Brown v. Tenn. Title Loans, Inc., 328 S.W.3d 850, 854 (Tenn. 2010) (quoting Freeman Indus., LLC v. Eastman Chem. Co., 172 S.W.3d 512, 516 (Tenn. 2005)). In considering a motion to dismiss, courts '"must construe the complaint liberally, presuming all factual allegations to be true and giving the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences.'" Tigg v. Pirelli Tire Corp., 232 S.W.3d 28, 31-32 (Tenn. 2007) (quoting Trau-Med, 71 S.W.3d at 696).

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12.02 is the proper vehicle for a defendant in a health care liability action to challenge a plaintiff's compliance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121. Myers v. Amisub, Inc., 382 S.W.3d 300, 307 (Tenn. 2012). "In the motion, the defendant should state how the plaintiff has failed to comply with the statutory requirements by referencing specific omissions in the complaint and/or by submitting affidavits or other proof." Id. Once the defendant makes a properly supported motion, the burden is then the plaintiff's to show that it either "complied with the statutes or that it had extraordinary cause for failing to do so." Id.

         In Myers, a health care liability action in which our Supreme Court reviewed the trial court's decision to deny a motion to dismiss for failure to comply with section 29-26-121, the court also set forth the standard for review of such a motion:

Because the trial court's denial of the Defendants' motion involves a question of law, our review is de novo with no presumption of correctness. Graham v. Caples, 325 S.W.3d 578, 581 (Tenn. 2010). The question of whether [the plaintiff] has demonstrated extraordinary cause that would excuse compliance with the statutes is a mixed question of law and fact, and our review of that determination is de novo with a presumption of correctness applying only to the trial court's findings of fact and not to the legal effect of those findings. Starr v. Hill, 353 S.W.3d 478, 481-82 (Tenn. 2011). We review the trial court's decision to excuse compliance under an abuse of discretion standard. "A court abuses its discretion when it applies an incorrect legal standard or its decision is illogical or unreasonable, is based on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, or utilizes reasoning that results in an injustice to the complaining party." Wilson v. State, 367 S.W.3d 229, 235 (Tenn. 2012) (citing Wright ex rel. Wright v. Wright, 337 S.W.3d 166, 176 (Tenn. 2011)). We examine the legal sufficiency of the complaint and do not consider the strength of the plaintiff's evidence; thus, all factual allegations in the complaint are accepted as true and construed in flavor of the plaintiff.

382 S.W.3d at 307-308.

         The statute of limitations for health care liability actions is one year. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-116(a)(1). Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) provides a 120-day extension from the expiration of the limitations period where the person asserting a potential claim for health care liability substantially complies with the notice requirements at section 121(a). Chelsea Helwig died on June 28, 2013; the first suit was filed more than one year later, on October 17, 2014, and was voluntarily dismissed pursuant to Rule 41 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure on January 27, 2015. The complaint was refiled on January 7, 2016, pursuant to the savings statute at section 28-1-105.[1] In their motion, Defendants contended that the suit should be dismissed because the first suit was not timely filed.

          At the trial court and on appeal Defendants contend that Plaintiffs are not entitled to the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations because Plaintiffs: (1) failed to send the notice to Rolling Hills' and Universal's registered agent, as required by Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(3)(B)(ii); (2) failed to provide Rolling Hills and Universal with Dr. Karl's name in the pre-suit notice, as required by section 29-26-121(a)(2)(D); and (3) by providing Defendants with authorizations that "were incomplete and did not authorize [Rolling Hills and Universal] to obtain complete medical records from ...


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