The Silence of the Debtor

Regular readers of my column will remember that my firm not only does commercial litigation but also medical debt collection. One of the most common causes of action are where the healthcare provider is not in-network with the insurance carrier. (No, this isn’t a case of balance billing…) What happens is, the insurance carrier makes a payment, and that payment is an amount that would be acceptable to the provider. However, the check is made payable to the patient, as the insured. It is then incumbent on the patient to remit the funds to the provider. The patient fails to do so, and thus, the provider retains me to sue for what is tantamount to insurance fraud. Straightforward right? The vast majority of time, once we commence suit, the matter is paid in full. Sometimes even with late fees and attorneys fees, depending on the quality of the contract between the provider and patient.

One such case that we had several years ago seemed similarly straightforward in its inception. Until it took an unusual turn.

The patient was an unemployed medical doctor, whom I shall refer to as Dr. Hannibal. Hannibal had suffered a slip and fall. (Not sure if he fell down a well, or how the injury was sustained). Nevertheless, he went to received medical attention from Dr. Starling, and incurred a bill for over $6,000.00. The insurance company was out of network, and issued a check for $3,500.00 to Hannibal. However, Hannibal did not remit the funds to Starling, and Starling retained us to file suit.

Once suit was filed, as is our practice, we contact the defendant telephonically. We called up Dr. Hannibal, and he answered his phone. While the reception seemed fine, he continually complained in a abrupt but monotonous manner, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.” After a few more tries, we decided to try to call him back later. We never got Dr. Hannibal on the phone, but we did receive an Answer to the lawsuit. The Answer admitted every single aspect of our Complaint, but asked for dismissal of the complaint due to “extenuating circumstances.”

Accordingly, I served a discovery demand asking Dr. Hannibal to identify the extenuating circumstances.  We received no response. We followed up with a good faith letter and a couple more calls. All met with Silence.

At that point, we simply brought a Motion for Summary Judgment. One day before the hearing, we received a demand for discovery from Dr. Hannibal. And no, he never responded to our demands. The most overt puzzling feature was that the font that was used on the envelope and the cover letter was Ransom Note. You know what I am talking about, the typeface that is made to look like each letter was manually cut out of a magazine, and pasted to form the words. The less overt puzzling feature is the disturbing questions he asked. (In 16 point Times New Roman). He asked for the attorneys’ home addresses, the names (and maiden names) of staff in my office. He asked for everyone’s social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and banking institutions. You can imagine the speed in which we were ready to divulge such information to Dr. Hannibal.

I drew the short straw in my office, and the next day, I appeared in Court. Hannibal appeared in Court, about 45 years old. He wore a short-sleeved blue buttoned down shirt, buttoned all the way to the top, and khaki slacks. He wore aviator shaped gold rimmed glasses. His matted brown hair was stereotypically combed over to attempt to conceal his male-pattern baldness.

The Judge, whom I shall call, Judge Justice, called us up for a conference, and casually flipped through my motion. He looked at Hannibal, and said “Did you get the check?”

Hannibal, with absolutely no expression on his face, nodded ever so slightly, and noted, “Yes.”

The Judge’s eyes widened. “Then pay them the money.”

“I will pay them $999.99 to settle.” He then took out an overstuffed envelope from his folder, which, for all I know, was stuffed with $1 bills.

The Judge looked at him, “That’s not going to do it, is it Mr. Wan?”

I quietly responded, “Unfortunately, not.”

“Fine, I will take the motion on submission. You’ll get a decision in the mail.” The Judge dismissed us.

“But what about my discovery demands?” Inquired Hannibal.

“Judge…” I interjected. “The demands were received yesterday, and do not seem to be tailored to the cause of action herein.” I handed the copy to the Judge, as he was sipping from his mug of coffee.

The Judge looked at it, and his eyes widened as he looked at me. “Discovery stayed, pending decision of the Court…. Counselor, I need to ask you about something unrelated to this case, stay here.”

Hannibal then left the Court.

The Judge looked at me, as I approached the bench. “Tim, just hang out here for a second until the Defendant leaves.”

Fast forward a few weeks later, we received the decision, and summary judgment was granted.  We entered judgment. And we never heard anything from Dr. Hannibal again. We never found any assets in his name. He owned no home. We never found any place of employment. No bank accounts. The mail we sent was undeliverable. The telephone number was no good. Absolutely nothing. There was no trace of Dr. Hannibal. Years passed, and Starling told us to close the file.

Three months ago, we suddenly received an unmarked envelope with a money order for the entered judgment amount, with a handwritten note, “For Dr. Hannibal’s Matter”.

Timothy Wan is a partner in the firm Smith Carroad Levy & Wan, in Commack, New York, and can be reached at twan@smithcarroad.com and he is surprised that the envelope did not include any fava beans.

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