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Franks v. Louisiana Patient's Compensation Fund Oversight Board

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

May 3, 2017

LORI FRANKS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS TUTRIX OF HER MINOR CHILDREN, A.F. AND C.F.
v.
THE LOUISIANA PATIENT'S COMPENSATION FUND OVERSIGHT BOARD, CHARLOTTE A. HOLLMAN, M.D., AND DEBORAH KAY GAHAGAN

         On Appeal from The 19th Judicial District Court, Parish of East Baton Rouge, State of Louisiana Trial Court No. C641926 The Honorable Todd Hernandez, Judge Presiding

          Robert J. David M. Palmer Lambert Rachel A. Sternlieb New Orleans, Louisiana Attorneys for Plaintiff /Appellant, Lori Franks, Individually and as Tutrix of Her Minor Children, A.F. and C. F.

          David A. Wooldridge Brent J. Bourgeois Carlton Jones III Baton Rouge, Louisiana Attorneys for Defendant/Appellee, Louisiana Patient's Compensation Fund Oversight Board.

          Vance A. Gibbs Deborah J. Juneau Baton Rouge, Louisiana Attorneys for Defendants /Appellees, Charlotte A. Hollman, M.D. and Deborah Kay Gahagan.

          BEFORE: WELCH, CRAIN, AND HOLDRIDGE, JJ.

          CRAIN, J.

         The plaintiff appeals a judgment denying her petition for declaratory and mandamus relief in connection with a medical review panel proceeding. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and render.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         At issue in this appeal is whether the Louisiana Patient's Compensation Fund Oversight Board (PCF) exceeded its statutory authority while processing a request for a medical review panel. The relevant facts are not in dispute. Lori Franks has twin minor sons, referred to herein as "A.F." and "C.F., " who received medical treatment for several years from Charlotte A. Hollman, M.D., and Deborah K. Gahagan, a nurse practitioner in Dr. Hollman's office. In January of 2015, Franks mailed a single letter to the Division of Administration requesting a medical review panel be formed to review the care provided by Dr. Hollman and Gahagan to both A.F. and C.F. The pro se request included a check for $200 for payment of the filing fee, which, under the Medical Malpractice Act, is one hundred dollars per named defendant qualified under the Act. See La. R.S. 40:1231.8A(1)(c).

         The Act also provides that a request "shall contain . . . [t]he name of only one patient for whom, or on whose behalf, the request for review is being filed." See La. R.S. 40:1231.8A(1)(b)(ii). Upon receipt of Frank's request, the PCF assigned two file numbers to the matter, one number for A.F.'s claim and a different number for C.F.'s claim, effectively splitting the request into two separate proceedings. The PCF then applied Frank's $200 check to the filing fee for A.F.'s claim against Dr. Hollman and Gahagan, and forwarded a letter to Frank acknowledging receipt of the claim and instructing her to proceed with the appointment of an attorney chairman. In a separate letter that referenced only C.F.'s claim, mailed on the same date, the PCF advised Franks a filing fee of $200 was due for that claim and had to be paid within forty-five days of the date the notice was mailed pursuant to Louisiana Revised Statute 40:1231.8A(1)(c).[1]When no additional funds were received, the PCF sent a letter to Franks informing her the delay for paying the fee had expired and C.F.'s claim was considered invalid and without effect.

         Franks filed the present proceeding seeking declaratory and mandamus relief against the PCF, Dr. Hollman, and Gahagan.[2] Franks alleged that the PCF exceeded its authority by sua sponte dividing her request for a medical review panel into two separate claims and then applying the $200 check "randomly in favor of one patient's claim over another." The check, according to Franks, should have been applied to pay the fee for both of her sons' claims against Dr. Hollman, and the claims against Gahagan should be dismissed. Franks requested a judgment declaring the PCF exceeded its authority in the processing of her request and that both claims against Dr. Hollman were timely filed. Franks further requested the PCF be ordered to reinstate C.F.'s request for a medical review panel proceeding against Dr. Hollman and the claims against Gahagan be dismissed.

         In response, the defendants maintained the PCF undertook reasonable measures to process a claim improperly filed on behalf of two patients. According to the defendants, when the PCF was presented with Frank's request filed on behalf of A.F. and C.F., the PCF reasonably assigned separate file numbers to each claim, allocated the $200 check to one of the claims, and notified Franks that a $200 filing fee was due for the other claim.

         After a hearing on the matter, the trial court ruled in favor of the defendants, explaining in written reasons:

The law imposes the duty upon the PCF to facilitate the medical review panel process and these duties are clerical and ministerial in nature. The Medical Malpractice Act recognizes [a] request for review by only one patient. Request[s] for medical review received from patients by the PCF cannot be processed using multiple patients in a single request. The law is clear on that point. The law is likewise clear that the failure to pay the filing fee to the PCF timely renders any such request invalid and without effect. The plaintiff, who was self-represented at the time of making her request to the PCF, failed to comply with the unambiguous statutory requirements of the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act by failing to request a review on behalf of each son separately and paying the statutor[ily] required fee for each. As such, based upon the law and evidence, the court denies the declaratory and mandamus relief sought in plaintiffs petition.

          A judgment was signed in accordance with those reasons. Franks appeals and assigns as error the trial court's finding the PCF did not exceed its authority, and the trial court's denial of her petition for declaratory and mandamus relief.

         DISCUSSION

         A person is entitled to a declaratory judgment when her rights are uncertain or disputed in an immediate and genuine situation, and the declaratory judgment will remove the uncertainty or terminate the dispute. See La. Code Civ. Pro. arts. 1871, 1875; In re Succession of Beard, 13-1717 (La.App. 1 Cir. 6/6/14), 147 So.3d 753, 762. A writ of mandamus may be directed to a public officer to compel the performance of a ministerial duty required by law. See La. Code Civ. Pro. arts. 3861-63; Berthelot v. Patients' Compensation Fund Oversight Board, 07-0112 (La.App. 1 Cir. 11/2/07), 977 So.2d 967, 973 n.6, writ denied, 07-2328 (La. 2/1/08), 976 So.2d 720. In mandamus proceedings against a public officer involving the performance of official duty, nothing can be inquired into but the question of duty on the face of the statute and the ministerial character of the duty he is charged to perform. Keating v. Van Deventer, 14-0157 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/19/14), 153 So.3d 1200, 1205 n.6, writs denied, 14-2188 (La. 1/9/15), 157 So.3d 598, 599, and 1106.

         In this declaratory and mandamus proceeding, the issue is the extent of the PCF's authority to process requests for medical review panels. The resolution of that issue turns on the proper interpretation of the Medical Malpractice Act. The starting point for interpretation of any statute is the language of the statute itself, as the text of the law is the best evidence of legislative intent. See La. R.S. 24:177 B(1); Rando v. Anco Insulations, Inc., 08-1163 (La. 5/22/09), 16 So.3d 1065');">16 So.3d 1065, 1075. The Medical Malpractice Act constitutes special legislation in derogation of the general rights available to tort victims and, therefore, must be strictly construed. See Dupuy v. NMC Operating Company, L.L.C., 15-1754 (La. 3/15/16), 187 So.3d 436, 439; Galloway v. Baton Rouge General Hosp., 602 So.2d 1003, 1005 (La. 1992). The interpretation of a statute is a question of law that is reviewed on appeal under the de novo standard of review. See Red Stick Studio Development, L.L.C. v. State ex rel. Department of Economic Development, 10-0193 (La. 1/19/11), 56 So.3d 181, 187.

         A request for review of a medical malpractice claim involving a qualified healthcare provider is governed by Section 40:1231.8 of the Medical Malpractice Act. Subparagraph A(1)(b) of that ...


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