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Chambers v. The Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

April 17, 2018

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 30 January 2018.

          Appeal by plaintiff from order entered 16 March 2017 by Chief Business Court Judge James L. Gale in Guilford County No. 12 CVS 6126 Superior Court.

          Higgins Benjamin, PLLC, by John F. Bloss, and Barry L. Kramer Law Offices, by Barry L. Kramer, Esq., admitted pro hac vice, for plaintiff-appellant.

          Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, by Philip J. Mohr and Brent F. Powell, for defendant-appellees The Moses Cone Memorial Hospital and The Moses Cone Memorial Hospital Corporation.

          BRYANT, Judge.

         Where the sole representative in a class action lacked a genuine personal interest in the outcome of the case and the unifying interests of the class was not temporary or unlikely to be resolved before the claim was heard, we affirm the trial court's dismissal of the class action complaint.

         On 23 August 2011, before receiving treatment for an emergency procedure at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital (hereinafter "Moses Cone"), Christopher Chambers (hereinafter "Chambers") signed Moses Cone's Patient Consent form. The form stated "I understand that I am financially responsible for, guarantee and agree to pay in full, in accordance with the regular rates and terms of [Moses Cone] at the time of patient's treatment, for charges for all services provided to me by [Moses Cone] . . . ." (Emphasis added). Moses Cone billed Chambers $14, 578.14 for services rendered and materials provided during his stay at the hospital. When the bill went uncollected, Moses Cone sued Chambers and his wife in Guilford County District Court.

         Chambers filed a class action complaint against Moses Cone in Guilford County Superior Court. Chambers alleged that Moses Cone charged inflated prices for emergency care services provided to uninsured patients. Within the hospital industry, a hospital's list of gross billing rates for products and services is referred to as a "chargemaster" list. However, these rates can be negotiated by insurance companies, managed care organizations, and uninsured patients seeking elective treatments. Chambers alleged that uninsured patients seeking emergency care procedures were charged the chargemaster price for products and services. Chambers argued that the Moses Cone emergency room Patient Consent Form's reference to "regular rates and terms" could not be made certain and were, therefore, governed by contract principles allowing Moses Cone to recover no more than "reasonable value" for its services and materials. Chambers contended that the reasonable value of the services he received was less than one-half of the amount Moses Cone charged. Chambers sought relief from Moses Cone under several theories, including: breach of contract, breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, constructive trust, declaratory judgment, restitution, and injunction.

         Moses Cone answered Chambers's class action complaint and counter claimed against Chambers and his wife, [1] as well as the putative class, seeking relief for unrecovered balances for the cost of services rendered.

         On 1 April 2016, Chambers filed an amended class action complaint seeking only a declaratory judgment that Moses Cone's Patient Consent form, obligating a patient to pay Moses Cone "in accordance with the regular rates and terms" applicable at the time of the patient's treatment, entitled Moses Cone to no more than the reasonable value of the treatment or services provided. Moses Cone subsequently dismissed with prejudice its counterclaims against Chambers and his wife and also dismissed its district court action against Chambers and his wife. Moses Cone then moved to dismiss Chambers's amended class action complaint with prejudice on the basis of Rule 12(b)(1).

         In an order entered 16 March 2017, the trial court dismissed Chambers's amended complaint on the basis of mootness: There was no longer a controversy between the parties, and the case did not fit within an exception that allowed a moot claim to proceed. Chambers appeals.

         On appeal, Chambers argues that the trial court erred by concluding that Moses Cone's dismissal of its counterclaims defeated Chambers's right to continue prosecuting the putative class action. We disagree.

         Rule 23 of our Rules of Civil Procedure provides that "[i]f persons constituting a class are so numerous as to make it impracticable to bring them all before the court, such of them, one or more, as will fairly insure the adequate representation of all may, on behalf of all, sue or be sued." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 23(a) (2017).

[P]rerequisites for bringing a class action . . . [include] that . . . the named representatives must establish that they will fairly and adequately represent the interests of all members of the class; [and] . . . the named representatives must have a genuine personal ...

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