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Benitez v. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

March 4, 2019

RAYMOND BENITEZ, individually And on behalf of all others similarly situated Plaintiff,
v.
THE CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG HOSPITAL AUTHORITY, d/b/a Carolinas Healthcare System, d/b/a Atrium Health Defendant.

          ORDER

          Robert J. Conrad, Jr.United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority's (“Defendant”) Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, (Doc. No. 22), and the parties' associated briefs and exhibits, (Doc. Nos. 16, 20-21, 23, 29-30, 47). Having been fully briefed, the matter is now ripe for adjudication.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Governments' Suit

         This is the second time this Court confronts this set of facts.[1] On June 19, 2016, the United States Department of Justice and the State of North Carolina (“the Governments”) filed suit against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority d/b/a Carolinas HealthCare System and Atrium Health (“Defendant” or “Atrium”) seeking injunctive relief. Doc. No. 1: “Governments' Complaint, ” United States v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hosp. Auth., No. 3:16-cv-311 (W.D. N.C. June 19, 2016) [hereinafter the Governments' suit]. Defendant is a North Carolina not-for-profit corporation providing healthcare services with its principal place of business in Charlotte. (Id. ¶ 1). Its flagship facility is Carolinas Medical Center, a large general acute-care hospital located in downtown Charlotte. (Id.). Defendant also operates nine other general acute-care hospitals in the Charlotte area. (Id.). The Governments brought a civil antitrust action to enjoin Defendant “from using unlawful contract restrictions that prohibit commercial health insurers in the Charlotte area from offering patients financial benefits to use less-expensive healthcare services offered by [Atrium's] competitors.” (Id. at 1). The Governments contend that “[t]hese steering restrictions[2] reduce competition resulting in harm to Charlotte area consumers, employers, and insurers.” (Id.). The Governments' suit remains pending in this Court.

         B. The Current Suit

         Between July 4 and July 10, 2016, Raymond Benitez (“Plaintiff”), a Charlotte resident, used Atrium general acute care inpatient hospital services[3] for seven overnight stays. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 3, Benitez v. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hosp. Auth., 3:18-cv-95 (W.D. N.C. Feb. 28, 2018) (i.e., the instant suit)). Plaintiff sought treatment at Atrium's flagship facility. At the time services were rendered, Plaintiff was the dependent of Estelvina Coroas-a policy holder who was insured under a health insurance policy issued under an agreement between Tyson Foods (i.e., the insured's employer) and Blue Advantage Administrators of Arkansas (“Blue Advantage”), an operating division of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield. (Doc. No. 20: Ex. 1). Plaintiff incurred charges for his healthcare services. (Id.). While insurance covered most of these charges, Plaintiff paid Atrium $3, 440.36 as a co-insurance payment. (Doc. No. 1 ¶¶ 3, 39) (“A co-insurance payment is the percentage of the bill for inpatient medical services paid directly by the insured inpatient consumer, with the rest paid by the insurance company.”).

         At the time Plaintiff received services from Atrium, Defendant had a separate contract-a Network Participation Agreement, (Doc. No. 21: Ex. 5)-with Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina (“BCBSNC”). The Network Participation Agreement required Atrium to treat any person presenting a “Blue Card” as a member. A Blue Card establishes evidence of coverage through an affiliated Blue Cross health plan. Under the terms of the Network Participation Agreement, Atrium treated Plaintiff as a Member of BCBSNC, which gave Plaintiff access to the discounted rates negotiated by BCBSNC with Defendant. (Doc. No. 21). The primary policy on those records is BCBS OOS PPO[4] (“Blue Cross Blue Shield Out of State Preferred Provider Organization”). (Doc. No. 20). The Network Participation Agreement authorizes Defendant to seek the collection of any deductibles or copayments, which are determined by the “Benefit Plan”-"the particular set of health benefits and services provided or administered by [BCBSNC] that is issued to an individual or to a Group.” (Doc. No. 21 at 3). Defendant does not set deductible or copayment prices; rather, the insurers establish these costs.

         Plaintiff's central allegation, derivative from the Governments' suit, is that Atrium's anti-competitive steering restrictions drove up prices for inpatient services and thus inflated the amount of co-insurance he paid. Plaintiff identifies the relevant product market as “[t]he sale of general acute care inpatient hospital services to insurers (‘acute inpatient hospital services')” and the relevant geographic market as “no larger than the Charlotte area.” (Id. ¶ 18).

         On February 28, 2018-almost two years after the Governments filed suit seeking injunctive relief against Defendant-Plaintiff commenced the instant suit against Defendant on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated. (Doc. No. 1). In this proposed class action for restraint of trade, Plaintiff seeks classwide damages and injunctive relief under Section One of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, and Sections 4 and 16 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 15, 26, against Defendant. (Doc. No. 1). The only difference between the requested relief in Plaintiff's suit as compared to the Governments' is that Plaintiff also seeks monetary damages for Defendant's alleged antitrust violations.

         In his Complaint, Plaintiff references the Governments' preexisting case and acknowledges that he “relies, in part, on the [Governments'] thorough assessments of the [Atrium] restraint of trade and their conclusions as to what constitutes the public interest.” (Id. ¶ 17). Plaintiff characterizes the instant suit as a “related action seek[ing] a remedy for consumers, who, as a result of [Atrium's] unlawful conduct, have been forced to pay [Atrium] above-competitive prices for inpatient services through co-insurance payments and other direct payments.” (Id. ¶ 2). Plaintiff seeks treble damages under 15 U.S.C. § 15 as recompense for the alleged violations of the Sherman Act and injunctive relief to enjoin Defendant from continuing to use and implement anti-steering provisions in its contracts with insurers.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 12(c) motions are governed by the same standard as motions brought under Rule 12(b)(6). Occupy Columbia v. Haley, 738 F.3d 107, 115 (4th Cir. 2013). In its review of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “the court should accept as true all well-pleaded allegations and should view the complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Mylan Labs Inc. v. Matakari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993) (internal citation omitted). But the court need not accept allegations that “contradict matters properly subject to judicial notice or by exhibit.” Blankenship v. Manchin, 471 F.3d 523, 529 (4th Cir. 2006) (quoting Veney v. Wyche, 293 F.3d 726, 730 (4th Cir. 2002)). The court may consider the complaint, answer, and any materials attached to those pleadings or motions for judgment on the pleadings “so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic.” Philips v. Pitt Cnty. Mem. Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009); see also Fed R. Civ. P. 10(c) (stating that “an exhibit to a pleading is part of the pleading for all purposes.”). In contrast to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court may consider the answer as well on a motion brought pursuant to Rule 12(c). Alexander v. City of Greensboro, 801 F.Supp.2d 429, 433 (M.D. N.C. 2011).

         The plaintiff's “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). “[O]nce a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint.” Id. at 563. A complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss will survive if it contains sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 678. Thus, the applicable test on a motion for judgment on ...


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