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Willner v. South County Hospital

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

January 7, 2020

Michael A. Willner, individually and as guardian, son, and/or next friend of Joyce C. Willner
v.
South County Hospital et al.

          Providence County Superior Court Associate Justice Sarah Taft-Carter (WC 15-199)

          For Plaintiff: Michael Willner, Pro Se

          For Defendants: Michael Messore IV, Esq. Rajaram Suryanarayan, Esq. Dennis S. Baluch, Esq. John R. Mahoney, Esq. Jeffrey G. Latham, Esq. Christine A. Stowell, Esq.

          Present: Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Goldberg Justice.

         This case came before the Supreme Court on November 7, 2019, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. The plaintiff, Michael Willner (plaintiff), appeals from a Superior Court judgment in favor of the defendants, South County Hospital, Home & Hospice Care of Rhode Island (Home & Hospice Care), and Emmy A. Mahoney, M.D. (Dr. Mahoney) (collectively defendants). After hearing the arguments of counsel and examining the memoranda filed by the parties, we are of the opinion that cause has not been shown, and we proceed to decide the case at this time. For the reasons stated in this opinion, the judgment of the Superior Court is affirmed.

         Facts and Travel

         In April 2012, plaintiff's mother, Joyce Willner (Joyce), [1] was admitted to South County Hospital for complications stemming from pneumonia. Her health quickly deteriorated, and she was transferred to general inpatient hospice, located in South County Hospital and operated by Home & Hospice Care. After Joyce was admitted to hospice, a disagreement arose between plaintiff, who misrepresented himself to hospital staff as holding Joyce's durable power of attorney for health care, and Joyce's husband, Kurt Willner (Kurt), over the plan of care for Joyce. This led to Kurt presenting a valid durable power of attorney for health care document to hospital staff, who, at that point, recognized Kurt as the controlling authority to make decisions about Joyce's care. Indeed, plaintiff did not hold Joyce's medical power of attorney, and did not become Joyce's guardian until later, in 2014. Undaunted, plaintiff continued to oppose the medical care that was provided to Joyce, and he became increasingly aggressive and disruptive, to the point where hospital staff informed him that he would be removed from the premises if his behavior continued. In turn, Kurt instructed hospital staff to withhold all information regarding Joyce's medical care from plaintiff. Joyce's health eventually and unexpectedly improved, and she was discharged from hospice in May 2012.

         On April 23, 2015, plaintiff filed a pro se complaint against South County Hospital and Home & Hospice Care. The plaintiffs were listed as "Michael A. Willner, individually and as guardian and next best friend of Joyce C. Willner, and Joyce C. Willner[.]" On August 18, 2015, plaintiff filed an eight-count first amended complaint against defendants, including Dr. Mahoney, who was Joyce's attending physician.[2] The plaintiff was listed as "Michael A. Willner, individually and as guardian, son, and/or next friend of Joyce C. Willner[.]"

         During pretrial discovery, it became clear that plaintiff was the key witness who would testify in support of the claims alleged in the amended complaint. The defendants deposed plaintiff on April 29, 2016. At a hearing on November 20, 2017, the trial justice learned that plaintiff was representing himself pro se, as well as the Guardianship of Joyce C. Willner (the Guardianship). Accordingly, on November 27, 2017, the trial justice issued an order disqualifying plaintiff from representing the interests of the Guardianship and allowing him to continue to represent himself pro se. Because plaintiff was an attorney and member of the District of Columbia Bar, he then filed a motion to represent the Guardianship pro hac vice on December 14, 2017. That motion was denied on January 22, 2018.

         Despite the trial justice's order denying plaintiff's motion to appear pro hac vice on behalf of the Guardianship, plaintiff did not retain counsel and continued to act as counsel for the Guardianship. For example, plaintiff deposed the representative of South County Hospital and noticed the deposition of Dr. Mahoney. As a result, in April 2018, Dr. Mahoney and Home & Hospice Care filed motions to disqualify plaintiff from acting as attorney for the Guardianship and to hold him in contempt for failing to comply with the trial justice's January 22, 2018 order. The defendants also filed a joint motion to strike the pleadings filed on behalf of the Guardianship. The trial justice granted the motion to disqualify and denied the motion to hold plaintiff in contempt on April 30, 2018, and granted the motion to strike on May 2, 2018. The trial justice also ordered plaintiff to obtain counsel for the Guardianship within thirty days. The plaintiff failed to meet that deadline.

         Accordingly, Dr. Mahoney filed a motion to dismiss the claims brought by plaintiff in his capacity as Joyce's guardian (and son) and a motion for summary judgment as to the claims brought against her by plaintiff individually. South County Hospital and Home & Hospice Care also moved for summary judgment as to all eight claims alleged in the first amended complaint. The trial justice granted the motion to dismiss and the motions for summary judgment, and dismissed all claims alleged by plaintiff individually and on behalf of the Guardianship. Final judgment entered on December 12, 2018, and plaintiff appealed.

         Standard of Review

         "In passing on a Rule 12(b) motion to dismiss, 'this Court applies the same standard as the trial justice.'" Dent v. PRRC, Inc., 184 A.3d 649, 653 (R.I. 2018) (quoting Narragansett Electric Company v. Minardi, 21 A.3d 274, 278 (R.I. 2011)). "We thus are confined to the four corners of the complaint and must assume all allegations are true, resolving any doubts in plaintiff's favor." Id. (quoting Minardi, 21 A.3d at 278). "[A] motion to dismiss may be granted only if it appears beyond a reasonable doubt that a plaintiff would ...


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