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Moya v. Aurora Healthcare, Inc.

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

May 4, 2017

Carolyn Moya, Plaintiff-Respondent-Petitioner,
v.
Aurora Healthcare, Inc. and Healthport Technologies, LLC, Defendants-Appellants.

          ORAL ARGUMENT: October 20, 2016

         Appeal of Circuit Court Milwaukee County No. 13-CV-2642 Karen E. Christenson Judge

         REVIEW OF A DECISION OF THE COURT OF APPEALS 366 Wis.2d 541, 874 N.W. 2D 336 (2016 WI.App. 5 - Published)

          For the plaintiff-respondent-petitioners, there was a brief by Robert J. Welcenbach and Welcenbach Law Offices, S.C., Milwaukee, and oral argument by Robert J. Welcenbach.

          For the defendants-appellants, there was a brief by John Franke, Daniel A. Manna and Gass, Weber and Mullins, LLC, Milwaukee, and oral argument by John Franke.

          MICHAEL J. GABLEMAN, J.

         ¶1 This is a review of a published decision of the court of appeals that reversed the Milwaukee County circuit court's[1] denial of Aurora Healthcare, Inc. and Healthport Technologies, LLC's (collectively referred to as "Healthport") motion for summary judgment and remanded the case with directions to grant Healthport's motion for summary judgment. Moya v. Aurora Healthcare, Inc., 2016 WI.App. 5, 366 Wis.2d 541, 874 N.W.2d 336.

         ¶2 Today, we are asked to interpret the meaning of the phrase "person authorized by the patient" in Wis.Stat. § 146.83(3f)(b)4.-5. (2013-14), [2] which exempts a "patient or a person authorized by the patient" from paying certification charges and retrieval fees for obtaining copies of the patient's health care records. More particularly, we are asked to determine whether an attorney whose client authorized him via a HIPAA[3] release form to obtain her health care records may benefit from this fee exemption. Because the phrase "person authorized by the patient" is defined in Wis.Stat. § 146.81(5) to include "any person authorized in writing by the patient, " we hold that an attorney authorized by his or her client in writing via a HIPAA release form to obtain the client's health care records is a "person authorized by the patient" under Wis.Stat. § 146.83(3f)(b)4.-5. and is therefore exempt from certification charges and retrieval fees under these subdivisions. Consequently, the decision of the court of appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         ¶3 We begin with a brief factual background and description of the procedural history. We then set forth the standard of review and the relevant rules for statutory interpretation. We then conclude that Carolyn Moya's ("Moya") attorney is a "person authorized by the patient" under Wis.Stat. § 146.83(3f)(b)4.-5. and is therefore exempt from the certification charge and retrieval fee authorized by that statute. Next, we address Healthport's arguments that the doctrines of voluntary payment and waiver bar Moya's claim.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A. The Statutes Governing Access to Health Care Records

         ¶4 Access to patient health care records is governed by Wis.Stat. § 146.83. Under subsec. (3f), a health care provider shall, subject to exceptions that are inapplicable here, provide copies of a patient's health care records "if a person requests copies of a patient's health care records, provides informed consent, and pays the applicable fees under par. (b)." § 146.83(3f)(a).

         ¶5 Pursuant to para. (b), health care providers may impose certain costs on the person requesting health care records under para. (a):

(b) Except as provided in sub. (1f), a health care provider may charge no more than the total of all of the following that apply for providing the copies requested under par. (a):
1. For paper copies: $1 per page for the first 25 pages; 75 cents per page for pages 26 to 50; 50 cents per page for pages 51 to 100; and 30 cents per page for pages 101 and above.
2.For microfiche or microfilm copies, $1.50 per page.
3.For a print of an X-ray, $10 per image.
4.If the requester is not the patient or a person authorized by the patient, for certification of copies, a single $8 charge.
5.If the requester is not the patient or a person authorized by the patient, a single retrieval fee of $20 for all copies requested.
6.Actual shipping costs and any applicable taxes.

Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f)(b) (emphasis added). According to subd. 4. and subd. 5., the patient and a person authorized by the patient are exempt from the certification charge and retrieval fee. This statute, though, does not provide a definition for a "person authorized by the patient."

         ¶6 Instead, a "person authorized by the patient" is defined in Wis.Stat. § 146.81(5) as

the parent, guardian, or legal custodian of a minor patient, as defined in s. 48.02 (8) and (11), the person vested with supervision of the child under s. 938.183 or 938.34 (4d), (4h), (4m), or (4n), the guardian of a patient adjudicated incompetent in this state, the person representative, spouse, or domestic partner under ch. 770 of a deceased patient, any person authorized in writing by the patient or a health care agent designated by the patient as a principal under ch. 155 if the patient has been found to be incapacitated under s. 155.05 (2), except as limited by the power of attorney for health care instrument. If no spouse or domestic partner survives a deceased patient, "person authorized by the patient" also means an adult member of the deceased patient's immediate family, as defined in s. 632.895 (1)(d). A court may appoint a temporary guardian for a patient believed incompetent to consent to the release of records under this section as the person authorized by the patient to decide upon the release of records, if no guardian has been appointed for the patient.

(Emphasis added). Because this definition uses the disjunctive "or, " see Hull v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins., 222 Wis.2d 627, 638, 586 N.W.2d 863 (1998) ("'[O]r' should be interpreted disjunctively."), in order to be a person authorized by the patient under Wis.Stat. § 146.83(3f)(b)4.-5., and therefore enjoy exemption from the certification charge and retrieval fee, a person must fall into only one of the above categories of persons. One of the categories in the above definition is "any person authorized in writing by the patient, " and it is this category on which Moya relies in arguing that her attorney is a "person authorized by the patient" under § 146.83(3f)(b)4.-5.

         B. Moya's Class Action Lawsuit

         ¶7 This case comes to us by way of a class action lawsuit filed by Moya on behalf of not only herself but all other similarly situated persons who have been billed the certification charge and retrieval fee by Healthport for obtaining their own healthcare records. The class action arose from Moya's personal injury claim[4] in which Moya hired Welcenbach Law Offices, SC to represent her and the law firm had to pay the certification charge and retrieval fee, despite the fact that Moya had authorized the law firm in writing to obtain those records.

         ¶8 Moya authorized her attorney, Robert Welcenbach, to obtain her health care records by signing HIPAA release forms giving to Welcenbach Law Offices, SC "authoriz[ation] to receive [her] health information."

         ¶9 Atty. Welcenbach subsequently submitted requests for Moya's health care records, [5] and Healthport, when fulfilling the requests, imposed certification charges and retrieval fees pursuant to Wis.Stat. § 146.83(3f)(b)4.-5. Atty. Welcenbach paid the certification charges and retrieval fees and passed the associated costs to Moya by deducting the costs from the settlement proceeds resulting from her personal injury claim.[6]

         ¶10 At the time Healthport invoiced Atty. Welcenbach, he paid the costs, and he did not specifically dispute them. However, he had on multiple previous occasions disputed the imposition of such costs in other cases.

         ¶11 In response to Healthport's imposition of the certification charges and retrieval fees, Moya filed this class action lawsuit. She argues that Healthport violated Wis.Stat. § 146.83(3f)(b)4.-5. when it imposed the certification charges and retrieval fees because her attorney is a "person authorized by the patient, " thereby exempting her attorney from paying the certification charges and retrieval fees.

         ¶12 Healthport moved to dismiss Moya's complaint for failure to state a claim, and the circuit court[7] denied Healthport's motion. Healthport filed an answer, and the parties underwent limited discovery. After the limited discovery, Healthport filed a motion for summary judgment asking the circuit court to dismiss Moya's claim with prejudice. The circuit court[8] denied Healthport's motion. Healthport filed a motion for reconsideration, and the circuit court[9] again denied Healthport's motion.

         ¶13 Healthport filed an interlocutory appeal, and the court of appeals reversed the circuit court's denial of Healthport's motion for summary judgment and remanded the case with instructions to grant Healthport's motion. Moya, 366 Wis.2d 541, ¶1. The court of appeals determined that Moya's attorney was not a "person authorized by the patient" and therefore Healthport could impose the certification charges and retrieval fees on Moya's attorney. Id., ¶16. Judge Kessler dissented stating that she would uphold the circuit court's denial of Healthport's motion for summary judgment and would conclude that Healthport could not impose the certification charge and retrieval fee. Id., ¶¶28-29 (Kessler, J., dissenting).

         ¶14 Moya petitioned this court for review, which we granted in order to determine whether her attorney is a "person authorized by the patient" and thus exempt from paying the certification charge and the retrieval fee found in Wis.Stat. § 146.83(3f)(b)4.-5.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶15 "Whether the circuit court properly granted summary judgment is a question of law that this court reviews de novo." Racine County v. Oracular Milwaukee, Inc., 2010 WI 25, ¶24, 323 Wis.2d 682, 781 N.W.2d 88 (quoting Hocking v. City of Dodgeville, 2009 WI 70, ¶7, 318 Wis.2d 681, 768 N.W.2d 552). Summary judgment must be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Wis.Stat. § 802.08(2). In making this determination, this court applies a two-step test. Green Spring Farms v. Kersten, 136 Wis.2d 304, 314-15, 401 N.W.2d 816 (1987). Under the first step, this court asks if the plaintiff stated a claim for relief. Id. at 315. Under the second step, this court applies the summary judgment statute and asks if any factual issues exist that preclude summary judgment. Id.

         ¶16 "We review questions of statutory interpretation and application independently, but benefiting from the discussions of the circuit court and the court of appeals." State v. Grunke, 2008 WI 82, ¶10, 311 Wis.2d 439, 752 N.W.2d 769.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. The Rules of Statutory Interpretation

         ¶17 "[T]he purpose of statutory interpretation is to determine what the statute means so that it may be given its full, proper, and intended effect." State ex rel. Kalal v. Circuit Court for Dane Cty., 2004 WI 58, ¶44, 271 Wis.2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110. Statutory interpretation begins with the text of the statute. Id., ¶45 (quoting Seider v. O'Connell, 2000 WI 76, ¶43, 236 Wis.2d 211, 612 N.W.2d 659). If the text of the statute is plain and unambiguous, our inquiry stops there. Id. (quoting Seider, 236 Wis.2d 211, ¶43).

         ¶18 If the text is ambiguous, we must look beyond the text to other, extrinsic sources of information, such as legislative history, to interpret the statute. Id., ¶46. "[A] statute is ambiguous if it is capable of being understood by reasonably well-informed persons in two or more senses." Id., ¶47. Even without ambiguity, though, we may consult extrinsic sources to confirm our understanding of the plain language of a statute. Id., ¶51.

         ¶19 "Statutory language is given its common, ordinary, and accepted meaning, except that technical or specially-defined words or phrases are given their technical or special definitional meaning." Id., ¶45. We also look to the context: "[S]tatutory language is interpreted in the context in which it is used; not in isolation but as part of a whole; in relation to the language of surrounding or closely-related statutes; and reasonably, to avoid absurd or unreasonable results." Id., ¶46. B. Interpretation of "Any Person Authorized in Writing by the Patient"

         ¶20 Moya argues that "any person authorized in writing by the patient" in Wis.Stat. § 146.81(5) is "defined broadly by the legislature" and that the plain meaning of the statutory language requires nothing more than a person and a written authorization from the patient. Thus, Moya's attorney qualifies as a "person authorized in writing by the patient" simply because he is a person and has a written authorization from Moya in the nature of the HIPAA release form. Healthport, on the other hand, argues that the context of § 146.81(5) indicates that the person authorized in writing by the patient must (in addition to having authorization to obtain health care records) also be authorized to make health care decisions on behalf of the patient. In response to this argument, Moya says Healthport can achieve this definition only by adding its own language to the statute.

         ¶21 After examining the language of the statute and applying the well-established rules of statutory interpretation, we agree with Moya. The context of the statutory definition of "person authorized by the patient" provided in § 146.81(5) indicates that "any person authorized in writing by the patient" is a stand-alone category, separate and apart from the remaining categories, containing no limitations beyond those expressly written. We base our determination in this regard on the punctuation and conjunctions given in the statute and see these categories as follows:

(1) "[T]he parent, guardian, or legal custodian of a minor patient, as defined in s. 48.02 (8) and (11)";
(2) "the person vested with supervision of the child under s. 938.138 or 938.34 (4d), (4h), ...

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