State ex rel. W.Va. Univ. Hosps. v. Gaujot

Decision Date26 April 2022
Docket Number21-0737
PartiesSTATE OF WEST VIRGINIA EX REL. WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY HOSPITALS, INC.; AND WEST VIRGINIA UNITED HEALTH SYSTEM, INC., d/b/a WVU HEALTHCARE, Petitioners, v. THE HONORABLE PHILLIP D. GAUJOT, JUDGE OF THE CIRCUIT COURT OF MONONGALIA COUNTY; CHRISTOPHER THOMACK; AND JOSEPH MICHAEL JENKINS, Respondents.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court

Submitted: March 2, 2022.

PETITION FOR WRIT OF PROHIBITION WRIT DENIED

Marc E. Williams, Robert L. Massie, Jennifer W. Winkler, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP Christine S. Vaglienti West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. Attorneys for the Petitioners.

Christopher J. Regan, Bordas & Bordas, PLLC, David J. Romano Jennifer L. Finch, Romano Law Offices, David E. Goddard Edmund L. Wagoner, Goddard & Wagoner Attorneys for the Respondents

Anthony J. Majestro Powell & Majestro PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Attorney for Amicus Curiae, West Virginia Association for Justice

JUSTICE WALKER, deeming herself disqualified, did not participate. JUSTICE ALAN D. MOATS, sitting by temporary assignment. JUDGE STACY L. NOWICKI-ELDRIDGE, sitting by temporary assignment. JUSTICE ARMSTEAD concurs, in part, dissents, in part, and reserves the right to file a separate opinion.

SYLLABUS

1. "A writ of prohibition will not issue to prevent a simple abuse of discretion by a trial court. It will only issue where the trial court has no jurisdiction or having such jurisdiction exceeds its legitimate powers. W.Va. Code, 53-1-1." Syllabus point 2, State ex rel. Peacher v. Sencindiver, 160 W.Va. 314, 233 S.E.2d 425 (1977).

2. "When a circuit court fails or refuses to obey or give effect to the mandate of this Court, misconstrues it, or acts beyond its province in carrying it out, the writ of prohibition is an appropriate means of enforcing compliance with the mandate." Syllabus point 5, State ex rel. Frazier & Oxley, L.C. v. Cummings, 214 W.Va. 802, 591 S.E.2d 728 (2003).

3. "A circuit court's interpretation of a mandate of this Court and whether the circuit court complied with such mandate are questions of law that are reviewed de novo." Syllabus point 4, State ex rel. Frazier & Oxley, L.C. v. Cummings, 214 W.Va. 802, 591 S.E.2d 728 (2003).

4. "Before certifying a class under Rule 23 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [2017], a circuit court must determine that the party seeking class certification has satisfied all four prerequisites contained in Rule 23(a)-numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation-and has satisfied one of the three subdivisions of Rule 23(b). As long as these prerequisites to class certification are met, a case should be allowed to proceed on behalf of the class proposed by the party." Syllabus point 8, In re West Virginia Rezulin Litigation, 214 W.Va. 52, 585 S.E.2d 52 (2003).

5. "A class action may only be certified if the trial court is satisfied, after a thorough analysis, that the prerequisites of Rule 23(a) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied. Further, the class certification order should be detailed and specific in showing the rule basis for the certification and the relevant facts supporting the legal conclusions." Syllabus point 8, State ex rel. Chemtall Inc. v. Madden, 216 W.Va. 443, 607 S.E.2d 772 (2004).

6. "The 'commonality' requirement of Rule 23(a)(2) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [2017] requires that the party seeking class certification show that 'there are questions of law or fact common to the class.' A common nucleus of operative fact or law is usually enough to satisfy the commonality requirement. The threshold of 'commonality' is not high, and requires only that the resolution of common questions affect all or a substantial number of the class members." Syllabus point 11, In re West Virginia Rezulin Litigation, 214 W.Va. 52, 585 S.E.2d 52 (2003).

7. "For purposes of Rule 23(a)(2) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [2017], 'a "question" "common to the class" must be a dispute, either of fact or of law, the resolution of which will advance the determination of the class members' claims.' Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 369, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2562, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011) (Ginsburg concurring in part and dissenting in part) (emphasis added)." Syllabus point 2, State ex rel. West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. v. Gaujot, 242 W.Va. 54, 829 S.E.2d 54 (2019).

8. "For commonality to exist under Rule 23(a)(2) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [2017], class members' 'claims must depend upon a common contention[, ]' and that contention 'must be of such a nature that it is capable of classwide resolution[.]' Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 350, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2551, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011). In other words, the issue of law (or fact) in question must be one whose 'determination . . . will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.' Id. (emphasis added)." Syllabus point 3, State ex rel. West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. v. Gaujot, 242 W.Va. 54, 829 S.E.2d 54 (2019).

9. "Before certifying a class pursuant to Rule 23 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, it is imperative that the class be identified with sufficient specificity so that it is administratively feasible for the court to ascertain whether a particular individual is a member." Syllabus point 3, State ex rel. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Starcher, 196 W.Va. 519, 474 S.E.2d 186 (1996).

10. "To demonstrate the existence of a class pursuant to Rule 23 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, it is not required that each class member be identified, but only that the class can be objectively defined. It is not a proper objection to certification that the class as defined may include some members who do not have claims because certification is conditional and may be altered, expanded, subdivided, or vacated as the case progresses toward resolution on the merits." Syllabus point 2, State ex rel. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Starcher, 196 W.Va. 519, 474 S.E.2d 186 (1996).

11. "When this Court remands a case to the circuit court, the remand can be either general or limited in scope. Limited remands explicitly outline the issues to be addressed by the circuit court and create a narrow framework within which the circuit court must operate. General remands, in contrast, give circuit courts authority to address all matters as long as remaining consistent with the remand." Syllabus point 2, State ex rel. Frazier & Oxley, L.C. v. Cummings, 214 W.Va. 802, 591 S.E.2d 728 (2003).

12. "Upon remand of a case for further proceedings after a decision by this Court, the circuit court must proceed in accordance with the mandate and the law of the case as established on appeal. The trial court must implement both the letter and the spirit of the mandate, taking into account the appellate court's opinion and the circumstances it embraces." Syllabus point 3, State ex rel. Frazier & Oxley, L.C. v. Cummings, 214 W.Va. 802, 591 S.E.2d 728 (2003).

OPINION

Moats, Justice:

For the third time, the petitioners, West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc., and West Virginia United Health System, Inc., d/b/a WVU Healthcare (collectively "WVU Hospitals"), seek to invoke the original jurisdiction of this Court to obtain an extraordinary writ of prohibition in relation to class action litigation filed by respondents, Christopher Thomack and Joseph Michael Jenkins (collectively "Class Representatives"), that has been pending since 2013. This time, WVU Hospitals argue that they are entitled to prohibitory relief because the circuit court failed to follow the express mandate of this Court as set forth in State ex rel. West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. v. Gaujot, 242 W.Va. 54, 829 S.E.2d 54 (2019). Specifically, WVU Hospitals claim that the circuit court violated this Court's mandate by failing to conduct a sufficiently thorough analysis of the commonality, ascertainability, and predominance factors required for class certification under Rule 23 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. Additionally, WVU Hospitals contend that the circuit court failed to give careful consideration to ethical issues pertaining to the inclusion of lawyers within the class definition, also in violation of this Court's mandate. After considering the briefs and oral arguments of the parties, the brief of amicus curiae, [1] the appendix record for this matter, and relevant legal precedent, we find no inadequacy in the circuit court's findings of commonality and ascertainability. We further conclude that the circuit court was under no obligation to revisit its predominance analysis or the class definition under this Court's prior mandate. Accordingly, we deny the requested writ of prohibition.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This case has followed a tortured path. Class Representatives Mr Thomack and Mr. Jenkins were each injured in unrelated accidents in 2012 and received treatment at Ruby Memorial Hospital ("Ruby") in Morgantown, West Virginia. Ruby is under the umbrella of Petitioners, WVU Hospitals. Then, in anticipation of litigation to recover damages for their accident-related injuries, Messrs. Thomack and Jenkins each sought, through their separate counsel, a copy of medical records documenting their respective stays at Ruby. Mr. Thomack alleges that he was required to pay $514.40 for a computer disc containing copies of his already-existing computerized medical records. Mr. Jenkins similarly avers that he was required to pay $656.80 for a computer disc containing copies of his already-existing computerized medical records. It is further alleged that WVU Hospitals arrived at these amounts by charging...

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