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Tortious Interference or Routine Dealings?

It is challenging for families to make the decision to enter a loved one into a long-term care (LTC) facility. It is wonderful when families are prepared for the financial costs of this transition. Hopefully, families are proactive and prepared, but unfortunately, not all have planned for the possibility of an extended-term living situation at an LTC facility. What happens when the money runs out? Many families rely upon Medicaid assistance for continued care. The process of funding further residency and applying for Medicaid benefits is oftentimes a difficult, timely, and arduous process.

Desperate Times and Desperate Measures

A New Jersey Appellate Court recently took on a case regarding an LTC resident being forced out of the facility, and her son’s perceived interference with the process, during the pendency of her Medicaid application. The outcome of this case may make friends and family of LTC residents weary of their interactions and conversations with the facility staff and their loved ones. What one might consider advocacy or support could qualify as tortious interference.

The Orchards at Bartley Assisted Living v. Schleck
Mother, Patricia, entered an assisted living facility in 2012. At the time, and throughout the course of litigation, her son, William, was her attorney-in-fact. The contract for residency included an agreement that if the resident cannot or does not pay, the facility may discharge the resident. Patricia was unable to maintain private-pay status and applied for Medicaid benefits. Due to the outstanding balance incurred while her Medicaid application was pending, the facility issued a discharge notice to Patricia. William advised her to not speak with the facility about her inevitable discharge and refused to pick her up when contacted by the facility. She was eventually approved for Medicaid benefits, which were retroactive, but the facility refused her as a Medicaid resident and proceeded to pursue eviction.

The facility then filed an amended complaint against mother and son for the outstanding balance, in addition to more than $17,000 in charges from the time of the discharge notice through the time of her departure. The facility also stated claims against the son for tortious interference with a contractual relationship and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, as well as an additional claim for breach of fiduciary duty. The trial court dismissed all of the claims against the son.  However, the appellate court disagreed with the dismissal of the claims for tortious interference with a contractual relationship and tortious interference with a prospective economic advantage.

Both tortious interference claims contain comparable elements. In New Jersey, the tort of interference with a business relation or contract contains four elements: (1) a protected interest; (2) malice—that is, defendant’s intentional interference without justification; (3) a reasonable likelihood that the interference caused the loss of the prospective gain; and (4) resulting damages.

The focus of the court was directed to whether the son’s actions were “unjustified.” The determination of an unjustified action requires a balancing test evaluating “the nature of and motive behind the conduct, the interests advanced and interfered with, societal interests that bear on the rights of each party, the proximate relationship between the conduct and the interference, and the relationship between the parties.” The appellate court found that the son’s actions could qualify as unjustified acts, when liberally reading the plaintiff’s complaint. Therefore, the court remanded the case to determine whether the son’s acts were sufficient to prove the tortious interference claims.

Impacts on the Future

There will be times in all of our lives where we react poorly to life’s circumstances. Other times, our reactions will be warranted. The outcome of this case reflects a view that there are occasions where friends, family, loved ones, or residents may step over the line: from putting a foot down to committing a legal wrong. On remand, the court will determine if William crossed this line when he refused to collect his mother and advised her not to cooperate with the facility. We must all remember that the words we select, and our influences on others, could land us in a pot of hot water.

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