Guardian Not Personally Liable For Alleged Lack of “Due Care”

APRIL 27, 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 38

Who has the obligation to get a proper Medicaid application filed for someone in a nursing home? Can the nursing home resident’s children, spouse, guardian or conservator be forced to pay for care after the patient’s money has run out but before the state Medicaid agency receives the application paperwork in proper order?

The usual answer to that question is a simple “no.” There are exceptions — a spouse may have an obligation of support, for instance, or a child may have separately promised the nursing home that the bills will be covered. The way this question most frequently comes up, though, is when a guardian or a child (and they may sometimes be the same person, though in today’s illustration the guardian was a public agency) has signed the facility’s admission documents but has not followed through with getting Medicaid eligibility established promptly.

That was essentially what happened with Eloise Selby, who resided at Arbor View Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in St. Joseph, Missouri. Bonnie Sue Lawson, who was the Buchanan County Public Administrator, was appointed as Ms. Selby’s guardian in 2004. A Medicaid application was already pending, but the agency did not have the paperwork necessary to determine the value of two small life insurance policies owned by Ms. Selby. Her new guardian promised to get the missing forms filed.

A month later, with no paperwork in sight, the Medicaid agency denied coverage. A second application filed a month after that included the missing forms, but Ms. Selby was again denied benefits — this time because the value of the two policies exceeded the maximum permissible amount. Yet another month later, another application was filed — and denied for the same reason.

The essential problem with the application became clear at that point: someone would need to cash in the policies, and Ms. Lawson was guardian of the person but not conservator of Ms. Selby’s estate. A conservatorship proceeding was filed, the funds collected, and the final, successful Medicaid application filed a year after the initial involvement of the Public Administrator’s office.

The nursing home then sued the guardian for the fees (and legal costs) it had not collected from Ms. Selby while the failed Medicaid applications were pending. The home’s argument: while Ms. Lawson would not be personally liable for her ward’s nursing home costs in most cases, in this case she had failed to use “due care” in fulfilling her duties.

The trial court agreed, and entered a judgment in favor of the nursing home (and against the Public Administrator) for $16,779.65 — the difference between what the nursing home had collected from Ms. Selby’s income and what it would have collected. The judge also assessed attorney’s fees and costs of $6,597.00 against the Public Administrator.

The Missouri Court of Appeals disagreed, and reversed the finding in favor of the nursing home. In  the appellate court’s analysis, Ms. Lawson’s liability for Ms. Selby’s debts was limited to the money in Ms. Selby’s name. Although the admission contract included specific language requiring the Public Administrator to use “due care,” it also included a provision that dealt directly with the possibility of Medicaid eligibility denial. That more specific section limited the facility’s rights to receiving payment from Ms. Selby’s funds; the court agreed with Ms. Lawson that the specific section controlled over the more general provision. Five Star Quality Care v. Lawson, April 7, 2009.

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