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PSYCHIATRIC INST. OF WASHINGTON, D.C. v. JOHNSON

October 9, 1996

PSYCHIATRIC INSTITUTE OF WASHINGTON, D.C., INC., Plaintiff,
v.
CARMEN G. JOHNSON, Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff, v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Third-Party Defendant, and FAIRFAX COUNTY, VIRGINIA, Third-Party Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERTSON

 This case began as a simple action to collect a bill for medical services but now involves third party defendants and raises issues of jurisdiction and equity that are not so simple. The court that may have jurisdiction to get the bill paid appears to be the U.S. Claims Court, and for that reason the defendant's third-party claim for insurance coverage will be transferred there. Equitable issues have arisen in this court relating to the conduct of Fairfax County, Virginia, however, and those issues will be dealt with here.

 BACKGROUND

 On April 3, 1990, the Department of Human Development of Fairfax County, Virginia ("Fairfax County") removed Carmen Johnson's son Nathaniel from her care, custody and control and placed him in psychiatric treatment at the residential facility operated by plaintiff Psychiatric Institute of Washington, D.C. Nathaniel's two-month admission resulted in a medical bill of $ 62,483.44.

 Ms. Johnson was an active duty enlisted member of the U.S. Army at the time. As her dependent, Nathaniel had health care coverage under the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the uniformed Services (CHAMPUS). Psychiatric Institute accordingly presented its bill to CHAMPUS, and CHAMPUS made partial payment. When CHAMPUS learned that Nathaniel had been in the custody of Fairfax County and not in Ms. Johnson's custody during his treatment, however, it rescinded its payment, taking the position that the Psychiatric Institute's bill was not within CHAMPUS coverage.

 Psychiatric Institute then turned to Fairfax County for payment. Fairfax County demurred, apparently on the theory that, under Virginia law, Ms. Johnson was liable for the health care of her son; regardless of whose custody he was in. Acting upon that theory, on May 13, 1992, Fairfax County obtained a judgment against Ms. Johnson in the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Court in the amount of $ 132,049.44 for the cost of Nathaniel's care and support. The Psychiatric Institute bill was included in the amount of that judgment, although Fairfax County paid nothing to the Psychiatric Institute. The judgment remains of record. Fairfax County has taken no steps to obtain satisfaction.

 On April 11, 1993, having been turned away by both CHAMPUS and Fairfax County, Psychiatric Institute sued Ms. Johnson for payment of its bill. The complaint, filed in D.C. Superior Court, set forth claims for breach of contract and quantum meruit and demanded $ 62,483.44 for medical services and $ 9,372.52 for attorneys' fees. Ms. Johnson was found to be eligible for court-appointed counsel. On September 9, 1994, acting through appointed counsel, she filed a third-party complaint against the United States and Fairfax County, setting forth claims for breach of contract (against the United States) and negligence (against both the United States and Fairfax County).

 The United States then removed the case to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1441(b) and 1446, and moved to dismiss Ms. Johnson's third-party complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction citing 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2). The United States argues that exclusive jurisdiction of Ms. Johnson's claim against CHAMPUS resides in the Claims Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1631. As for the negligence claim, the United States asserts failure to comply with F.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)'s requirement of a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fairfax County moved to dismiss and for summary judgment on Ms. Johnson's third-party complaint, arguing inter alia that any issue between Ms. Johnson and the County is precluded by the 1992 Juvenile and Domestic Court judgment against Ms. Johnson. And Ms. Johnson moved under F.R.Civ.P. 60(b) for an order relieving her from the Virginia judgment.

 The Psychiatric Institute and Ms. Johnson now agree that Ms. Johnson's claim against CHAMPUS should be transferred to the U.S. Claims Court, and such a transfer will be ordered. First, however, the issues raised by Ms. Johnson's amended third-party complaint against Fairfax County and Fairfax County's interposition of the 1992 state court judgment must be sorted out.

 The Fairfax County judgment against Ms. Johnson was premised on a finding that she owed Fairfax County for the support of her son, pursuant to Va. Code § 16.1-290 (1988). The cited Code section provides as follows:

 
Whenever legal custody of a juvenile is vested by the court in someone other than his parents, or whenever a juvenile is placed in temporary shelter care regardless of whether or not legal custody is retained by his parents, after due notice to the parents or other persons legally obligated to care for and support the juvenile, and after an investigation and hearing, the court shall order and decree that the parent or other legally obligated person shall pay, in such a manner as the court may direct, a reasonable sum commensurate with the ability to pay, that will cover in whole or in part the support and treatment of the juvenile after the decree is entered.

 Ms. Johnson asserts that the Virginia judgment was issued without any inquiry as to her finances and Fairfax County has not disputed that assertion. The order contains no finding that $ 132,049.44 would be a "reasonable sum commensurate with [her] ability to pay." *fn1" The judgment is thrown into further question by Fairfax County's reliance on Va. Code § 63.1-251, which provides:

 
Any payment of public assistance money made to or for the benefit of any dependent child or children or their caretaker creates a debt due and owing to the [Fairfax County Human Services] Department by the person or persons who are responsible for support of such children or caretaker in an ...

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