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West Texas LTC Partners, Inc. v. Collier

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

January 9, 2020

WEST TEXAS LTC PARTNERS, INC. D/B/A CEDAR MANOR NURSING& REHAB, Appellant
v.
SHEILA COLLIER, INDEPENDENT ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF BRUCE H. MELTON, DECEASED, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 119th District Court Runnels County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 15, 722

          Panel consists of Justices Wise, Zimmerer, and Spain.

          OPINION

          JERRY ZIMMERER, JUSTICE

         Appellant West Texas LTC Partners, Inc., d/b/a Cedar Manor Nursing Home and Rehab (Cedar Manor) filed suit against Sheila Collier as Independent Administratix with Will Annexed of the Estate of Bruce C. Melton (the Estate) seeking to recover amounts it alleged were owed for nursing home care Melton received prior to his death. The trial court signed a take-nothing judgment in favor of the Estate following a bench trial. Finding no error, we affirm.

         Background

         Cedar Manor is a nursing home located in Tom Green County. Melton resided at Cedar Manor for several months in 2013. Cedar Manor alleged that Melton owed $6, 844 for the costs incurred during his stay. Following a stay in a hospital, Melton moved to a nursing home located in Ballinger, in Runnels County.

         The Ballinger nursing home contacted Sheila Collier, the owner and manager of Covenant Outreach, LLC, with concerns regarding Melton's ability to handle his own affairs. Melton was eventually declared incapacitated and Covenant was appointed as his guardian. On September 12, 2014, Covenant sent a letter to Cedar Manor notifying it of the guardianship proceedings. Covenant's letter also notified Cedar Manor that, pursuant to section 1153.003 of the Estates Code, Cedar Manor had 120 days from the receipt of the letter to file a verified claim "against this guardianship estate in this case," or risk the claim being "barred by law." The letter further advised that Covenant could not "pay any such indebtedness until the proper authenticated claim has been filed with the Clerk of the Court, approved by [Covenant, ] and then approved by the Court." It is undisputed that Cedar Manor received the letter on September 15, 2014. It is also undisputed that Cedar Manor did not file an authenticated claim in the guardianship proceeding.

         Cedar Manor instead filed suit against the guardianship in Tom Green County. Cedar Manor sought to recover the $6, 844 it alleged was unpaid from Melton's stay at Cedar Manor. Covenant filed an answer and also sought a transfer of venue to Runnels County, the county where Melton resided and where the guardianship was pending. The Tom Green County court transferred the case to Runnels County. The case was still pending when Melton died. The Runnels County court dismissed Cedar Manor's lawsuit without resolving Cedar Manor's claim.

         Covenant started probate proceedings in Runnels County. Shortly thereafter Collier was appointed the independent administratrix with will annexed of Melton's estate, and Melton's estate was admitted to probate. Cedar Manor submitted an authenticated claim for the $6, 844 it alleged was owed for Melton's stay at Cedar Manor. Collier objected to Cedar Manor's claim. Among other objections, Collier asserted the "affirmative defense that [Cedar Manor] failed to file its claim in the time necessary in the guardianship proceeding, therefore the claim is barred."

         Faced with Collier's objection to its claim, Cedar Manor filed suit against the Estate in the probate proceeding asserting claims for suit on a sworn account and breach of contract. The Estate filed an answer asserting the affirmative defense of limitations based on Cedar Manor's failure to file a claim in the guardianship proceeding. The probate court transferred the contested matter to district court.

         The case was set for a bench trial. Prior to trial, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation in which they stipulated, in pertinent part, to the following facts: (1) Melton resided at Cedar Manor from April 15, 2013, to July 31, 2013; (2) Melton's account with Cedar Manor remains unpaid; (3) Covenant was appointed and qualified as Melton's guardian; (4) Covenant sent a letter to Cedar Manor on September 12, 2014, advising Cedar Manor to file a claim in the guardianship; (5) Cedar Manor received the letter three days later; and (6) Cedar Manor did not file a claim in the guardianship. At the beginning of the bench trial, the parties acknowledged that, apart from the principal amount of the debt due, and the amount of claimed attorney's fees, they had stipulated to all material facts in the case. In addition, the trial court and the parties agreed that liability turned on the "legal issue" of the Estate's limitations affirmative defense. The parties then presented limited testimony concerning the amount of the debt and attorney's fees, after which the parties rested. At the close of the evidence, the trial court took the matter under advisement. A few days later, the trial court signed a take-nothing judgment in favor of the Estate.

         Cedar Manor requested findings of fact and conclusions of law, which the trial court eventually signed. Among other findings, the trial court found that Covenant "sent a notice to [Cedar Manor] to file a claim for amounts due for services provided to Mr. Melton" and the "notice was received September 15, 2014." The trial court also found that Cedar Manor "did not file a claim for services rendered." Finally, the trial court found that Cedar Manor's "$6, 844.00 claim was for nursing home services provided to Mr. Melton from April 15, 2013 to July 30, 2013," and "that amount remains unpaid." The trial court then denied Cedar Manor's requested relief based on the following conclusions of law:

1. A Guardian may notify creditors of a Ward that the Creditor must file a claim within 120 days from receipt of the letter, or the claim is barred. Estates Code § [1153.004].
2. A claim against a ward in guardianship must be presented to the Guardian. Estates Code ยง ...

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