Filed May 3, 2007--Opinion by Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky. This is a judicial review of an administrative decision involving the disallowance by Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene ("DHMH") of claims by two federally qualified health clinics ...

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"Maryland Courts Watcher" - 5 new articles

  1. Community Clinic, Inc. v. Dept. of Health (Ct. of Special Appeals)
  2. Williams v. Iron Workers Local No. 16 Pension Fund, et al. (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Not Approved for Publication)
  3. Stewart v. State (Ct. of Appeals)
  4. Brown v. American Institutes for Research, (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Approved for Publication)
  5. Prince George County v. Ray's Used Cars (Ct. of Appeals)
  6. More Recent Articles

Community Clinic, Inc. v. Dept. of Health (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed May 3, 2007--Opinion by Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky.

This is a judicial review of an administrative decision involving the disallowance by Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene ("DHMH") of claims by two federally qualified health clinics ("FQHCs" or collectively, "Clinics") for reimbursement of costs under the Maryland Medical Assistance Program ("Medicaid" or the "Program"). The disallowance was based upon DHMH's application of its regulation establishing a monetary cap on a class of costs included in the Clinics' requests for reimbursement. The Clinics contend that the Maryland regulation does not comply with governing federal law.

States that elect to participate in Medicaid are required to submit to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services a plan detailing how the State will expend federal funds. Entitled "State plans for medical assistance," 42 U.S.C. § 1396a (1994), provides in relevant part,

. . . for payment for services . . . under the plan 100 percent of costs which are reasonable and related to the cost of furnishing such services or based on such other tests of reasonableness, as the Secretary prescribes in regulations . . . or, in the case of services to which those regulations do not apply, on the same methodology used under section 13951(a)(e)."
Reasonable, and necessary and proper, costs were defined in 42 CFR § 413.9 (1996), as follows:

(1) Reasonable cost of any service must be determined in accordance with regulations establishing the method or methods to be used, and the items to be included. The regulations in this part take into account both direct and indirect costs of providers of services. The objective is that under the methods of determining costs, the costs with respect to individuals covered by the program will not be borne by individuals not so covered, and the costs with respect to individuals not so covered will not be borne by the program. These regulations also provide for the making of suitable retroactive adjustments after the provider has submitted fiscal and statistical reports. The retroactive adjustment will represent the difference between the amount received by the provider during the year for covered services from both Medicare and the beneficiaries and the amount determined in accordance with an accepted method of cost apportionment to be the actual cost of services furnished to beneficiaries during the year.
(2) Necessary and proper costs are costs that are appropriate and helpful in developing and maintaining the operation of patient care facilities and activities. They are usually costs that are common and accepted occurrences in the field of the provider's activity.
As part of its program, Maryland adopted regulations for FQHCs, entitled "Reimbursement Principles for FQHC Services Rendered Before and Including June 30, 1999," currently codified in COMAR 10.09.08.05.C. As relevant to the issue, the regulation provides that "federally qualified health centers shall be paid 100 percent of their reasonable allowable costs, subject to the limitations contained in § C(4)-(7) of this regulation, that are related to the provisions of covered services." Reimbursement of FQHCs is on a per visit basis. Reimbursement during a fiscal year is based on an interim per visit rate, with a final per visit rate determined for the entire year. The regulation further requires that an FQHC's cost be divided into four categories, called "centers." These are general service costs, primary care services cost, dental services costs and non-reimbursable costs. The instant matter concerns the general service cost center, for which the parties have adopted the term "administrative costs" as a shorthand reference.
The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") made findings of fact in each case, placing considerable emphasis on the discussion of reasonable costs in the Medicare Provider Reimbursement Manual, Part I, specifically:

It is the intent of the program that providers will be reimbursed for the actual costs if providing high quality care, regardless of how widely they may vary from provider to provider except where a particular institution's costs are found to be substantially out of line with other institutions in the same area which are similar in size, scope of services, utilization and other relevant factors.

Reasonable costs do not exceed what a prudent and cost-conscious buyer pays for a given item or service

Applying the above-quoted standards, the ALJ found that the Clinics had shown the costs were reasonable because the Clinics were subject to both internal and external checks on its fiscal practices, and there was no evidence of self-dealing or of any incentive to pay excessive salaries or rent.

DHMH excepted to the ALJ's recommended order that the disputed claim for reimbursement be paid. The Secretary of DHMH rejected the ALJ's conclusion , expressly adopting the findings of fact that the ALJ had made on the cross motions for summary decision but declining to adopt the ALJ's reasoning and legal conclusions. With respect to the DHMH exception that assumed the ALJ had concluded the cap was not reasonable on its face, the Secretary ruled that there was ample evidence supporting the reasonableness of the cap, pointing as evidence to the public process in the adoption of the cap, federal approval of the program, and the utilization of relatively comparable caps in five other states. In addition, the Secretary pointed to a cap, utilized in the program, on the reimbursable costs of managed care organizations.

The Clinics appealed from the Secretary to the Board of Review of DHMH (the "Board"). After review and oral argument, the Board affirmed the Secretary without further explanation. The Board's action constituted the final agency decision for purposes of judicial review under the Administrative Procedures Act. HG § 2-207(f)(2).

On petition for judicial review in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, the Clinics advance the following arguments:


I. The circuit court erred in applying a substantial evidence test.

II. The Secretary erred in not accepting the ALJ's conclusions of law after accepting the ALJ's findings of fact.

III. DHMH never examined the limits at issue to determine whether they unlawfully curtailed the health centers' reasonable costs.
Is the cap invalid under all circumstances? The Clinics contended that Maryland could not cap administrative expenses at a fixed percentage of total allowable costs unless it first had undertaken a study demonstrating that administrative costs above the chosen percentage are always unreasonable. The Court found that the cap was adopted in accordance with the Maryland Administrative Procedure Act and that it was approved by HCFA as complying with federal law. Consequently, the cap is presumed valid, and the burden rests with the Clinics to demonstrate its invalidity. In Maryland, the test for determining the validity of the adoption of a regulation is whether it contradicts the language or purpose of the statute authorizing the regulation. The Court held that the federal requirement for state reimbursement of 100% of an FQHC’s reasonable cost is satisfied by the state system that affords the FQHC the opportunity to demonstrate that its costs, albeit in excess of a cap, are reasonable. To answer the Clinics’ second question, whether the cap was validly applied in the instant matter, the Court found that the Secretary was not restrained by the recommended conclusion drawn by the ALJ; rather, the Secretary was free to make the determinative inference that the excess costs were unreasonable if that inference was supported by substantial evidence.

In addressing the Clinics’ first argument, the Court relied on the issue of whether the Secretary’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. Consequently, Argument 1 missed the mark. The Secretary did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in declining to draw the inference that the Clinics’ costs were reasonable. Nor did the Secretary act arbitrarily in concluding that the Clinics’ primary evidence, due to the absence of specific comparisons to administrative costs of other FQHCs, did not persuade him that the Clinics’ administrative costs, in excess of the cap, were reasonable.

Based on the foregoing reasoning, the Court found it unnecessary to decide if the cap is a valid conclusive presumption.

Judgment was affirmed.

The full opinion is available in PDF
    

Williams v. Iron Workers Local No. 16 Pension Fund, et al. (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Not Approved for Publication)

Signed May 2, 2007--Memorandum Opinion by Judge Andre M. Davis.


Ronald Williams ("Williams") brought this action against defendants pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 USC § 1001, et seq., to challenege the denial of pension benefits.

The fund's existence predates the enactment of ERISA. Administration and management of the fund is by contract with specialists, with the Board of Trustees setting policies and procedures. The outcome of this case hinges on the proper interpretation and application of one of the Trustees' amendments to the plan. Defendants argue that although contributions were made on behalf of Williams over many years, he failed to vest or otherwise accrue entitlement to those benefits. Williams argues that he is eligible for a pension, albeit a reduced pension, under a 1972 pre-ERISA version of the pension plan. Under the 1972 version, a participant's entitlement to a pension would vest after he or she earned seven years of credit and at least a partial benefit was payable when he or she reached retirement age. If a participant failed to work sufficient hours over a specified period to earn the requisite vesting credit, the participant would not vest and all potential benefits would be subject to forfeiture based on the relevant "break-in-service" rules.

Consequent to an amendment in the vesting schedule, the graduated vesting schedule maintained by the fund in 1972 was rescinded; instead, vesting occurred only after ten years of service. The issue then is whether when the trustees changed the vesting schedule to ten years, they did so before Williams had accrued sufficient vesting credit to gain an entitlement to benefits even under the pre-ERISA pension plan and whether Williams received proper notice of that amendment.

The gravamen of this dispute, therefore, is two-fold: (1) whether the amendment to the vesting schedule became effective on January 1, 1976 or only later, in November 1977, when the amendment to the vesting schedule was embodied in a formal printed restatement of the plan; and (2) whether Williams received notice of the fund's amendment to the vesting schedule in time for him to adjust his work plans so as to secure a pension benefit.

The Court rejected Williams' arguments relating to any potential benefits accrued before the amendment and found the defendants provided proper and sufficient notice of the amendment. Held that the Williams' motion for summary judgment denied and defendant's motion granted.







The full opinion is available in PDF.
    

Stewart v. State (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed May 11, 2007--Opinion by Judge Irma Raker, Dissent by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

Stewart was indicted in a multi-count indictment alleging child abuse, second degree sexual offense, third degree sexual offense, and fourth degree sexual offense. The court sentenced him to a term of incarceration of twenty years on the child abuse offense and merged the sexual offenses into the child abuse conviction for sentencing purposes. The single issue in this appeal involves the failure of the circuit court to ask certain questions to the venire panel during voir dire that were requested by defense counsel.


Defense counsel submitted two voir dire documents -- "Defendant's Requested Voir Dire," containing eighteen questions, and "Amended Defendant's Requested Voir Dire," containing fifty-two questions. Defense counsel withdrew the initial voir dire request and substituted the amended version. It is the failure of the trial court to ask the questions on the amended voir dire request that is the subject of this appeal.

In Maryland, the sole purpose of voir dire is to ensure a fair and impartial jury by determining the existence of cause for disqualification and not, as in many other states, to include the intelligent exercise of preemptory challenges. The scope of voir dire and the form of questions propounded rests firmly within the discretion of the trial judge, as it is the responsibility of the trial judge to conduct an adequate voir dire to eliminate from the venire panel prospective jurors who will be unable to perform their duty fairly and impartially and to uncover bias and prejudice. In reviewing the court's exercise of discretion during voir dire, the standard is whether the questions posed and the procedures employed created a reasonable assurance that prejudice would be discovered if present. Further, on review of voir dire, the appellate court looks at the record as a whole to determine whether the matter has been fairly covered.

As to the scope of inquiry and the decision as to whether to permit a particular question, the trial judge is not required, with some limited exceptions, to ask specific questions requested by trial counsel. Questions which are not directed at a specific ground for disqualification, which are merely fishing for information to assist in the exercise of preemptory challegnes, which probe the prospective juror's knowledge of the law, ask a juror to make a specific commitment, or address sentencing considerations are not proper in voir dire.

Here, the record is replete with indications that the court fulfilled its duty to empanel an impartial jury. Therefore, the Court held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to propount appellant's requested voir dire.

The full opinion is available in PDF.
    

Brown v. American Institutes for Research, (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Approved for Publication)

Opinion Issued May 17, 2007--Opinion by Judge Roger W. Titus. (Approved for publication.)

The first paragraph of the Court's opinion establishes its theme:
This case exemplifies the old adage that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." The Plaintiff is the horse of this story, and the water that she was led to, but would not drink, was effective service of process. In spite of repeated opportunities provided to the Plaintiff to effect valid service of process, she simply would not drink the water. However, valid service of process is essential to the concept of due process, and when it has not been effected, the due processes of the law cannot even begin. The details of this sad story follow.
The plaintiff first attempted to serve process on the corporation by serving an individual who was not an officer of the corporation. The name of the defendant as set forth in the complaint was also incorrect. Furthermore, the plaintiff used certified mail to make this first attempt, but failed to check the box on the return receipt requesting restricted delivery.

The defendant responded with a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 12(b)(5) for failure to effect proper service. Attached to the motion was a printout from the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation showing the correct name of the defendant and the name and address of the resident agent.

After the initial motion to dismiss was filed, the plaintiff made two additional attempts to effect service, one by certified mail to the same individual that the first attempt was made to, but at a different address, and another via private process server to the residence of a vice-president of the defendant. This time, the certified mail was signed for by an individual who was not authorized to accept service and the delivery by private process server was made only to the residence of the vice-president, not upon her personally. Oddly, the plaintiff's counsel again asserted that, after checking with appropriate authorities in Maryland and the District of Columbia, he could not identify a resident agent for the defendant even though this information had been provided in the motion to dismiss previously filed by the defendant.

After reviewing both the federal rules and the pertinent Maryland rules regarding service of process, the Court granted the defendant's motion. It allowed the plaintiff until May 30, 2007, to properly effect service and, sua sponte, amended the complaint to reflect the correct name of the defendant. In its opinion, the Court quoted at length the late Chief Judge of the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland from the opinion in Colonial Carpets, Inc. v. Carpet Fair, Inc., 36 Md. App. 583, 374 A.2d 419, 420-21 (1977):
[P]rocedural rules are "the lawyer's compass and serve to help him steer through the narrows of pleading, pass the rocks of default, around the shoals of limitation, and safely into the harbor of judgment. It is a reckless sailor, indeed, who puts to sea without a compass, and it is a reckless lawyer who fails to familiarize himself with" the applicable procedural rules before filing and trying a case. [Chief Judge Gilbert] went on to lament that notwithstanding the importuning of appellate courts that the "rules of procedure are not to be considered as mere guides or Heloise's helpful hints to the practice of law, but rather precise rubrics that are to be read and followed, admonitions go unheeded by some practitioners. When that occurs, we are left to wonder whether we are engaged in an endless struggle, just as waves beat upon the shore, fall back and then repeat over and over ad infinitum."
Id. at 584-85, 374 A.2d at 421.

A copy of the opinion is available in PDF, as is a copy of the order.

    

Prince George County v. Ray's Used Cars (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed May 4, 2003--Opinion by Judge John Eldridge.

This case concerns a challenge to the constitutionality of a zoning ordinance establishing the minimum lot size of 25,000 square feet for used motor vehicle, mobile home or camping trailer sales lots. The dispositive issue in the case, however, is whether the ordinance's challengers were first required to invoke and exhaust administrative remedies. The petitioner, Prince George's County, argues that a judicial determination of the constitutionality of the zoning ordinance is premature because the respondent used car dealers failed to invoke and exhaust their administrative remedies. The respondents claim that pursuit and exhaustion of administrative remedies were not required in this case and that the zoning ordinance is unconstitutional on the ground that it violates due process and equal protection principles.

The Court held that the respondent used car dealers were required to invoke and exhaust administrative remedies prior to obtaining judicial review.

The full opinion is available in PDF.
    

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