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North Cypress Medical Center Operating Company GP, LLC v. Norvil

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

May 30, 2019

NORTH CYPRESS MEDICAL CENTER OPERATING COMPANY GP, LLC AND NORTH CYPRESS MEDICAL CENTER OPERATING COMPANY, LTD., Appellants
v.
ANGELINE NORVIL, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 333rd District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2018-06608

          Panel consists of Justices Lloyd, Landau, and Countiss.

          OPINION

          RUSSELL LLOYD, JUSTICE

         North Cypress Medical Center Operating Company GP, LLC and North Cypress Medical Center Operating Company, Ltd. (collectively, North Cypress) are appealing the denial of their motion to dismiss Angeline Norvil's petition for declaratory judgment. In a single issue, North Cypress argues that the trial court erred by denying its motion to dismiss because the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) applies to Norvil's claim, there are no applicable statutory exemptions, Norvil did not meet her burden to establish a prima facie case for her claim, and North Cypress established affirmative defenses to Norvil's claim for declaratory relief. We affirm the trial court's order denying the motion to dismiss.

         Background

         On June 20, 2014, Norvil was injured in a slip-and-fall at a Kroger grocery store. She was transported by ambulance to North Cypress's emergency room, where she was treated for her injuries.

         Norvil did not have health insurance. At the time North Cypress treated Norvil, she signed a contract which provides: "In consideration of the services to be rendered to the patient, I individually promise to pay the patient's account at the rates stated in North Cypress' price list . . . which rates are expressly incorporated by the reference as the price term of this agreement to pay the patient's account." Norvil also agreed to assign her right to payment of any proceeds, including settlement funds received from a third-party, to North Cypress (the assignment).

         On July 7, 2014, North Cypress filed a hospital lien pursuant to Chapter 55 of the Texas Property Code to give notice that it was asserting a lien on all causes of action or claims pursued by Norvil for damages arising from her accident. One week later, North Cypress's counsel sent Norvil notice of the filing of the hospital lien and a demand for payment of $5, 028.50, full amount of "unpaid charges for medical goods and services," as set forth in the hospital bill. On March 14, 2017, Norvil informed North Cypress that she was in the process of settling her claim with Kroger's insurance company and she proposed reducing the amount of the hospital bill by 50% which would result in a total amount owed of $2, 514.25. Norvil explained that she needed to determine the amount of the reduction to "be able to determine the amount for a proper settlement." North Cypress requested additional information before it could agree to a reduction. On April 4, 2017, Norvil provided a breakdown of proposed payments to various parties based on the current settlement offer of $33, 500. Norvil asserted that it was necessary for North Cypress to reduce the amount of the bill because North Cypress had charged her over $3, 000 for an MRI even though "the average amount negotiated with most major health insurers" in Texas for an MRI is $400.

         North Cypress responded by sending a second letter to Norvil on April 14, 2017, rejecting the proposed reduction, and demanding payment of the full amount of the bill. North Cypress also requested additional documents and information relating to Norvil's settlement discussions with Kroger. On September 20, 2017, North Cypress sent a third letter to Norvil demanding additional documents and information, including an update on her settlement negotiations with Kroger. North Cypress also threatened to sue both Norvil and her attorney for conversion if she did not honor the lien.

         Norvil filed a petition for declaratory judgment pursuant to the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA) on January 31, 2018, seeking determination of the parties' rights, status, and other legal relationship arising under Chapter 55 of the Property Code. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 37.001-.011. Specifically, Norvil argued that Texas Property Code Section 55.004(d)(1) limits the amount of a hospital lien to the "reasonable and regular rate for the services," and she asked the court to declare that North Cypress's charges exceeded a reasonable and regular rate for the medical services provided and were not recoverable under Chapter 55. See Tex. Prop. Code § 55.004(d)(1). Norvil also requested a determination "as to what reasonable charges should have been for such services at the time and place that they were rendered."

         North Cypress answered and asserted affirmatives defenses of quasi-estoppel and estoppel by contract. North Cypress also asserted counterclaims against Norvil for breach of contract, quantum meruit, unjust enrichment, suit on a sworn account, conversion, and money had and received.

         North Cypress filed a timely motion to dismiss under the TCPA alleging that the TCPA applies because Norvil's declaratory judgment action is based on North Cypress's filing of the hospital lien, and, therefore, Norvil's declaratory judgment action relates to North Cypress's right of free speech and right to petition. Norvil filed a response to the motion in which she argued, among other things, that: (1) the TCPA was inapplicable based on the statute's commercial speech exemption; (2) the trial court was nevertheless required to deny the motion to dismiss because she brought forth clear and specific evidence establishing a prima facie case for each element of her claim; and (3) North Cypress failed to meet its burden with respect to its affirmative defenses.[1]

         The trial court denied North Cypress's motion to dismiss without specifying the basis for its decision.

         Texas Citizens ...


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