Updated: February 05, 2020 01:08 PM
Created: January 30, 2020 01:00 AM
ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — News10NBC is exposing the trend of nursing homes suing the friends and families of residents whether they're dead or alive.
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In the lawsuits, the nursing homes say they are owed money for the care they give but instead of going after the money from Medicaid.
News10NBC found out the nursing homes are going after spouses, children, grandchildren and friends.
They are suing these people because they signed an admission agreement when their loved one moved into a nursing home.
The nursing homes and their lawyers also accuse many relatives and friends of hiding money, including a 79-year-old woman who was trying to help her friend.
Ms. Robinson and Ms. Patterson
Two years ago, Barbara Robinson agreed to help her friend move into Monroe Community Hospital, the county's nursing home.
Robinson was her only caregiver for years but in 2018, her friend got very sick. Janet Patterson died two months after she moved into MCH.
"It was a loss," Robinson said. "I still miss her."
Robinson was already Patterson's power of attorney. But to get her friend a bed, Robinson signed the 25-page Admission Agreement to Monroe Community Hospital which included an addendum making Robinson the "financial agent."
That act of charity would come back to bite her.
More than a year later, a lawsuit showed up at Robinson's home in Bloomfield. Monroe County, the owner of Monroe Community Hospital, sued the estate of Janet Patterson and Barbara Robinson for $21,000.
Robinson: "At first I thought it was a joke."
Chief Investigative Reporter Berkeley Brean: "It must have scared you though."
Robinson: "Well it did when I realized they were serious."
Not only does the county say Robinson owes $21,000, the lawsuit accused her of "breach of contract" and "fraudulent conveyance," intentionally moving Janet Patterson's money with "actual intent" to not pay the nursing home.
Robinson says Patterson lived on social security, just $800 a month. And she says the hospital had all of her friend's financials.
Robinson: "They know there wasn't an estate."
Brean: "They were looking for the money."
Brean: "And they started coming after you."
"This is a classic example of no good deed goes unpunished," said Anna Anderson, a lawyer with Law NY, a non-profit legal office in Rochester. Anderson defended Robinson for free.
Brean: "The nursing home provided services for Janet Patterson. They're owed money."
Brean: "Somebody's got to pay them."
Anderson: "Yes but Barbara doesn't owe the money. Barbara didn't receive any of these services.”
For the last two months, I compiled a list of more than six dozen lawsuits by non-profit nursing homes against residents, some of them dead, and their daughters, sons, spouses, nieces, nephews and friends.
The plaintiff in 30 of the cases, four out of every 10 filed, is Monroe County, the owner of Monroe Community Hospital.
The Highlands at Brighton sued eight times.
St. Anne's Homes for the Aged sued 12 times.
The Highlands Living Center sued five times.
St. John's Healthcare Corp. sued 14 times.
Some lawsuits demand huge amounts of money.
In Robinson's case, the nursing home bill shows Medicare covered her friend's first two weeks in MCH.
After that, Medicaid was supposed to kick in, but Robinson's lawyer says the Medicaid application was never filed by the nursing home. So the bill, filed as evidence in the lawsuit, shows the cost of care of $420 a day built up until Patterson died.
The total was $21,000.
"Yes the resident likely owes something," Anderson said. "But that does not mean the nursing home can pursue whomever the resident knew and was helping to try to collect on this bill."
"I guess they thought, they must think there's an estate. I don't know what they think," Robinson said. "Or they're just hoping they can scare me into paying a bill I don't owe."
Why the lawsuits happen
"The lawsuits represent a very small percentage of accounts that have essentially gone bad," said David Tang, an attorney at Rochester law firm Underberg and Kessler.
That's the firm that represents nine non-profit nursing homes in the lawsuits we identified naming daughters, sons, spouses and friends.
Tang says the lawsuits represent about two to three percent of the total number of residents.
We've also learned that over the same period of time, Harris Beach filed seven similar cases. The firm Pullano and Farrow filed five.
Brean: "Why are you suing family members and friends?"
Tang: "The only time we'll name an individual in addition to the resident is because that individual has identified themselves as someone who is responsible for the resident's finances."
Tang says that happens when relatives and friends signed the admission agreement that includes the same document Barbara Robinson signed.
Remember, addendum five said Robinson agreed to be the financial agent for her friend.
Brean: "But by agreeing to do this, they're opening themselves up to being sued."
Tang: "So, that's an interesting question. If there is no missing money then no lawsuit would take place."
"I just never dreamed when I signed that that there was anyway there would be trouble for me," Robinson said.
I asked Tang about alleging "fraudulent conveyance" against people like Robinson even though the lawsuits don't provide proof.
"I can't comment on a specific case but typically the allegation would not be included unless there was evidence of some kind of transfer or some kind of control over the assets which were not used to pay towards the cost of care," Tang said.
"Well there wasn't any money to hide," Robinson said.
Robinson says Janet Patterson lived on her social security check and rented an apartment.
Robinson says the nursing home told her it would take care of getting her friend's social security checks and Medicaid.
"Maybe they really think I did something wrong. I doubt that," Robinson said. "I think they just knew I had power of attorney, so they took a shot at me."
The case gets dismissed
In October, Supreme Court Justice Debra Martin dismissed the case against Robinson. But five days before Christmas, Monroe County appealed. So the case is still active.
Why did the judge throw it out? Court documents show Judge Martin believed Robinson never got billed while she was still power of attorney, there was no proof that Robinson moved money and no proof that Robinson didn't try to help.
The solution: know what you're signing
"By signing an agreement, a contract with a nursing home, a friend or family member is actually exposing themselves to liability whether they know it or not," said Miles Zatkowsky, an attorney at Dutcher and Zatkowsky.
He is an expert at this since his firm specializes in elder law.
Brean: "So what is the answer here? Don't sign these agreements if you have a loved one going into a nursing home?"
Miles Zatkowsky, Dutcher & Zatkowsky Elder Law: "Again that gets complicated because what clients are telling us is that if I don't sign the agreement as is, I'm not getting a bed offer."
Zatkowsky's firm offers free reviews of the nursing home contracts.
"They should know what they're signing," he said. "The concern is that I want my loved one cared for properly and if this is a prerequisite or requirement to get them into the nursing home, 'show me where I sign?'"
We analyzed the lawsuits and found:
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