Banuelos v. Univ. of Wis. Hosps. & Clinics Auth.

Docket Number2020AP1582
Decision Date04 April 2023
Citation406 Wis.2d 439,2023 WI 25,988 N.W.2d 627
Parties Beatriz BANUELOS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN HOSPITALS AND CLINICS AUTHORITY, Defendant-Respondent-Petitioner.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

For the defendant-respondent-petitioner, there were briefs filed by Daniel A. Manna, Jay P. Lefkowitz, P.C., Gilad Bendheim, Kelsey Davis, and Gass Turek LLC, Milwaukee, and Kirkland & Ellis LLP, New York City. There was an oral argument by Jay P. Lefkowitz, P.C.

For the plaintiff-appellant, there was a brief filed by Jesse B. Blocher, Peter M. Young, Corey G. Lorenz, and Habush, Habush, & Rottier, S.C., Waukesha. There was an oral argument by Jesse B. Blocher.

An amicus curiae brief was filed by Daniel E. Conley, Matthew J. Splitek, Alexandra W. Shortridge, and Quarles & Brady LLP, Milwaukee, for Aurora Health Care, Inc.

An amicus curiae brief was filed by Scott E. Rosenow and WMC Litigation Center, Madison, for the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, Inc.

An amicus curiae brief was filed by Brett A. Eckstein, Edward E. Robinson, Brian D. Anderson, and Cannon & Dunphy, S.C., Brookfield, and Everson, Whitney, Everson & Brehm, S.C., Green Bay, for the Wisconsin Association for Justice and Wisconsin Defense Counsel.

An amicus curiae brief was filed by Sara J. MacCarthy, Stephane P. Fabus, Heather D. Mogden, and Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman, P.C., Milwaukee, for the Wisconsin Hospital Association, Inc., the Wisconsin Medical Society, Inc., the Wisconsin Dental Association, Inc., LeadingAge Wisconsin, Inc., the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, the Wisconsin Health Care Association/Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living, and the Wisconsin Health Information Management Association, Inc.

An amicus curiae brief was filed by Susan E. Lovern, Christopher E. Avallone, and von Briesen & Roper, S.C., Milwaukee, for the Association of Health Information Outsourcing Services.

ANN WALSH BRADLEY, J., delivered the majority opinion of the Court, in which DALLET, HAGEDORN, and KAROFSKY, JJ., joined. ROGGENSACK, J., filed a dissenting opinion. REBECCA GRASSL BRADLEY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ZIEGLER, C.J., and ROGGENSACK, J., joined.

ANN WALSH BRADLEY, J.

¶1 The petitioner, University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority (UW Hospitals), seeks review of a published court of appeals opinion reversing and remanding the circuit court's dismissal of Beatriz Banuelos's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.1 Banuelos contends that she was unlawfully charged per page fees for copies of her medical records which were provided in an electronic format. The court of appeals agreed and determined that Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f) (2017-18)2 does not permit a health care provider to charge fees for providing copies of patient health care records in an electronic format.

¶2 UW Hospitals argues, in essence, that the court of appeals erred because Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f) is silent as to fees for electronic copies of patient health care records. Accordingly, it does not prohibit a health care provider charging fees for providing such copies. And thus, Banuelos's complaint alleging unlawful and excess charges fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.3

¶3 Banuelos offers a different interpretation of the statute's silence. She asserts that because fees for electronic copies are not enumerated in the statutory list of permissible fees that a health care provider may charge, the fees charged here are unlawful under state law. As a result, Banuelos maintains that her complaint survives the motion to dismiss.

¶4 We conclude that although Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f) provides for the imposition of fees for copies of medical records in certain formats, it does not permit health care providers to charge fees for patient records in an electronic format. Therefore, we determine that Banuelos's complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted.

¶5 Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

I

¶6 The essential facts set forth below are taken from Banuelos's complaint. Because we are reviewing the circuit court's determination of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, we must assume that these facts are true. Yacht Club at Sister Bay Condo. Ass'n, Inc. v. Village of Sister Bay, 2019 WI 4, ¶4, 385 Wis. 2d 158, 922 N.W.2d 95.

¶7 Banuelos signed and submitted a request to UW Hospitals for copies of her medical records in electronic format.4 The request directed and authorized that the records be transmitted to her attorneys.

¶8 UW Hospitals complied with the request through its service provider, Ciox, and transmitted copies of Banuelos's patient health care records electronically to her attorneys, along with an invoice for $109.96.5 The requested payment for copies included "per page" charges of $1.14 for the first 25 pages, $0.86 for the next 25 pages, $0.56 for the next 50 pages, and $0.34 for an additional 94 pages, which is consistent with the maximum rate for paper copies of patient health care records permitted under Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f).6

¶9 Banuelos filed suit, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as damages. Her complaint alleged that because the copies of electronic patient health care records she requested do not fall into one of the enumerated categories contained within Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f), none of the charges permitted under § 146.83(3f) applies to her electronic records request. Accordingly, she argued that UW Hospital's charge of $109.96 was in violation of state law.

¶10 In response, UW Hospitals filed a motion to dismiss, alleging in its supporting brief that Banuelos's claims were "fundamentally flawed" with respect to her interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f).7 The circuit court granted the motion. It concluded that "the legislature has failed to cover the situation where records are requested in electronic form and provided in electronic form. And therefore, the charge that was made or demanded is not a violation." It reasoned that because the fee UW Hospitals charged was not a violation of Wisconsin law, Banuelos could not prevail in this case and dismissal of the complaint was warranted.

¶11 Banuelos appealed, and the court of appeals reversed the circuit court's order. Banuelos v. Univ. of Wis. Hosps. and Clinics Auth., 2021 WI App 70, 399 Wis. 2d 568, 966 N.W.2d 78. The court of appeals conducted a plain meaning analysis of Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f) and determined that the statute plainly and unambiguously permits a health care provider to charge fees for the formats enumerated in the statute and only those formats. Because fees for copies of records in an electronic format are not enumerated, the court of appeals concluded that such fees cannot lawfully be charged. UW Hospitals petitioned for this court's review.

II

¶12 We are called upon to review the court of appeals’ decision reversing and remanding the circuit court's dismissal of Banuelos's complaint for failure to state a claim. In order to withstand a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the complaint must plead facts, which if true, would entitle the plaintiff to relief. Wis. Stat. § 802.02(1)(a) ; Data Key Partners v. Permira Advisers LLC, 2014 WI 86, ¶21, 356 Wis. 2d 665, 849 N.W.2d 693. Whether a complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted is a question of law this court reviews independently of the determinations rendered by the circuit court and court of appeals. Hinrichs v. DOW Chem. Co., 2020 WI 2, ¶23, 389 Wis. 2d 669, 937 N.W.2d 37.

¶13 Our review also requires us to interpret several Wisconsin statutes. Statutory interpretation is likewise a question of law that we review independently of the determinations of the circuit court and court of appeals. Sw. Airlines Co. v. DOR, 2021 WI 54, ¶16, 397 Wis. 2d 431, 960 N.W.2d 384.

III

¶14 The sufficiency of the claims alleged in Banuelos's complaint depends upon our interpretation of Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f). Interestingly, both parties embrace a plain meaning interpretation of the statute, but arrive at opposite conclusions.

¶15 In resolving the inquiry of whether Wis. Stat. § 146.83(3f) permits a fee to be charged for copies of health care records in electronic format, we are aided by some familiar tools of statutory interpretation. With those interpretative tools in hand, we examine first the text of § 146.83(3f). Next, we look to § 146.83(3f) ’s statutory history. Finally, we address UW Hospitals’ arguments advancing that the scope of § 146.83(3f) does not include electronic records.

A

¶16 The familiar tools of statutory interpretation provide guiding principles for our inquiry. "[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. Cir. Ct. for Dane Cnty., 2004 WI 58, ¶44, 271 Wis. 2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110. "We assume that the legislature's intent is expressed in the statutory language." Id. "In construing or interpreting a statute the court is not at liberty to disregard the plain, clear words of the statute." Id., ¶46, 681 N.W.2d 110. If the text of the statute is plain and unambiguous, our inquiry stops there. Id., ¶45, 681 N.W.2d 110.

¶17 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. We interpret statutory language in context, "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, 681 N.W.2d 110. Language is also interpreted to avoid surplusage and to give reasonable effect to every word. Id. A review of statutory history is part of a plain meaning analysis. Richards v. Badger Mut. Ins. Co., 2008 WI 52, ¶22, 309 Wis. 2d 541, 749 N.W.2d 581.

B

¶18 In...

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