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Estate of Mendoza v. Trenton Psychiatric Hospital

July 20, 2010


On appeal from a Final Decision of the Department of Human Services, Division of Mental Health.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 4, 2010

Before Judges Fuentes and Simonelli.

Plaintiff Estate of Rosa M. Mendoza (Estate) appeals from the October 17, 2007 final decision of the Commissioner of respondent Department of Human Services (DHS) approving the recommendation of the Compromise Panel to reject the Estate's compromise offer of $30,000 to settle an $83,357.60 debt owed to the State of New Jersey for services rendered to the decedent Rosa M. Mendoza (Mendoza) at respondent Trenton Psychiatric Hospital (TPH). We affirm.

On February 9, 1999, Mendoza, a native of Mexico, sustained a traumatic brain injury as a result of a motor vehicle accident in New Brunswick. She developed dementia as a result of that injury. On June 7, 1999, the court ordered her temporary involuntary commitment to the Carrier Foundation pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.10, where she stayed until the exhaustion of personal injury protection automobile insurance benefits.

On August 18, 1999, Mendoza was transferred to TPH pursuant to court order. On September 22, 1999, the court placed Mendoza on conditional extension pending placement (CEPP) pursuant to Rule 4:7-7(h)(2) due to the unavailability of an appropriate placement after discharge. On September 23, 1999, the court ordered the State to pay for the cost of Mendoza's maintenance at TPH based on the County adjuster's certification of her inability to pay at the time; however, Mendoza remained personally liable for the full cost of her maintenance pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4-66.

On January 19, 2000, the court ordered Mendoza's discharge to Mexico and continued her on CEPP until that time. Due to difficulties arranging Mendoza's aftercare in Mexico, repatriation took seven and one-half months. During Mendoza's stay at TPH, her attorney, and sister who lived in Atlantic City, visited her.

Mendoza was discharged on April 6, 2000, and returned to Mexico. On June 26, 2000, TPH sent her a bill for $83,357.60 for the cost of her maintenance there (the bill). The amount of the bill became a lien against Mendoza pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4-80.1.

Mendoza died on March 18, 2002. Over two years later, on May 13, 2004, Mendoza's attorney, who now represented the Estate, requested that TPH compromise the lien to $30,000. On May 19, 2004, Jim Wolfe, chairperson of DHS's Compromise Panel, advised the attorney that the "purpose of the compromise procedure is to mitigate against the possible harmful or counterproductive effects of Departmental actions . . . against clients and former clients[,]" and that since Mendoza "is deceased and there are no financial dependents," a compromise would be "in direct conflict with the policies and standards" of the Department. Wolfe also advised that the Estate remained liable for the lien pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4-74, and that DHS expected the Estate to pay it.

DHS received no further communication from the Estate or its attorney until after a 2005 amendment to N.J.S.A. 30:4-80.1, which extinguished all liens filed prior thereto against a person treated at a psychiatric facility. On April 28, 2006, the Estate's attorney asked DHS to extinguish and discharge the lien pursuant to the amended statute. DHS discharged the judgment TPH had filed with the Superior Court; however, it advised the attorney that "unpaid balances on institutional accounts remain due[,]" and that the Estate must pay it pursuant to N.J.S.A. 3B:22-2.

On January 19, 2007, DHS advised the Estate's attorney that although the lien was discharged, the Estate remained liable for the bill pursuant to Administrative Order 5:06 (AO 5:06),*fn1 and that the Estate could submit a compromise request, which must include "an accounting of the [E]state's assets and liabilities[,]" and should include any other information bearing on the compromise decision factors outlined in AO 5:06, particularly, evidence of any surviving minor or disabled dependents.

The Estate's attorney responded with unsubstantiated claims that Mendoza had disabled and elderly dependents, that she regularly sent economic assistance to her parents and disabled sister in Mexico, and that her parents had incurred considerable expenses for her care upon her return to Mexico. He also submitted affidavits from persons other than Mendoza's parents or sister containing statements about these family members' alleged disabilities and dependence on Mendoza. The attorney did not provide an accounting of the Estate's assets and liabilities, or mention a pending personal injury action Mendoza had filed in connection with the motor vehicle accident. Also, for the first time, the attorney mentioned that he believed that TPH's billing "was at best skewed due to the lack of care [Mendoza] received at [TPH], due in part to the lack, at the time, of Spanish-speaking personnel and therapists." However, he did not challenge the amount of the bill.

The Estate failed to disclose its assets and liabilities. As a result, DHS conducted an investigation and discovered that the Estate had obtained an approximately $275,000 settlement of Mendoza's personal injury action. DHS subsequently learned that, except for the bill amount, which had been placed in ...

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