On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-0578-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 11, 2012
Before Judges Alvarez and Waugh.
Plaintiff Home for the Armenian Aged (the Home) appeals the October 12, 2011 dismissal with prejudice after trial of its complaint against defendant Araxie Symeonidis. Final judgment by default had previously been entered against the second defendant, Eugenie Baboudjian. For the following reasons, we affirm.
Symeonidis and Baboudjian met in 2006. Symeonidis, a certified home health care aide, and Baboudjian, who was then living alone and was in her late eighties or early nineties, are Armenian. Symeonidis speaks English but has a limited ability to read or write English.
Shortly after becoming acquainted, Baboudjian and Symeonidis agreed that Baboudjian would move to Symeonidis's home in order for Symeonidis to care for her full-time. Baboudjian's attorney prepared a contract memorializing their understanding, and although not entirely clear from the record, Baboudjian signed two powers-of-attorney designating Symeonidis as her attorney-in-fact, one giving her access to Baboudjian's bank account, and the other a general power-of-attorney authorizing her to make arrangements for Baboudjian's medical care.
The agreement was mutually satisfactory. After Baboudjian fell a third time while in Symeonidis's home, however, the Hackensack University Medical Center, Baboudjian's treating hospital, instead of releasing her, transferred her to the Home on September 19, 2008. Symeonidis was not consulted about the decision and, in fact, learned of it only when she went to the hospital to visit and found Baboudjian was gone. In hospital records, Symeonidis was listed both as the power-of-attorney and next-of-kin, although only the former was accurate.
At trial, Matthew Russo, the Home's administrator, testified that Baboudjian, "despite seeming" coherent and lucid on the date of transfer, refused to sign the Home's twenty-two-page "Admissions Agreement." Therefore, a few days later, the Home obtained Symeonidis's signature instead. The Admissions Agreement purported to make Symeonidis personally liable for the cost of Baboudjian's care. The document also obliged Symeonidis to apply on Baboudjian's behalf for Medicaid coverage, if Baboudjian's own assets and Social Security benefits should prove insufficient.
Although Russo recalled telling Symeonidis to read and sign each page of the document, he remembered no other detail regarding their meeting. Despite testifying that Symeonidis was the party "responsible" for expenses pursuant to the Agreement, Russo candidly admitted that the Home had not expected Symeonidis to pay Baboudjian's bills because she was not related nor otherwise legally responsible. The Home did expect Symeonidis to apply for Medicaid benefits, however, and pay any balance due from Baboudjian's estate. Because Symeonidis unsuccessfully applied for Medicaid twice, the Home itself eventually applied for Medicaid benefits for Baboudjian through the Bergen County Board of Social Services. Though Baboudjian was not receiving Medicaid at the time of trial, Russo explained that after a penalty period, the Home would receive Medicaid reimbursement for Baboudjian's care commencing April 2012.
The trial judge found all the witnesses credible, including Jill Kerrs, a bookkeeper, who testified that the Home was owed $272,205.66 for services rendered to Baboudjian. Kerrs had no knowledge regarding individual charges, only that the amount was the total unpaid balance due for Baboudjian's care on the Home's books and records.
The trial judge noted that the fourteen separate counts in plaintiff's complaint included demands based on contract principles as well as other theories, such as quantum meruit. She also observed that Symeonidis's signature on the Agreement was not even necessary, as Baboudjian, the actual patient, was competent when she was transferred to the Home from the hospital. The judge found the Admissions Agreement to be a contract of adhesion because the lengthy form was boilerplate, presented to Symeonidis by the Home on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and Symeonidis did not understand its terms, given her limited grasp of written English. Furthermore, the judge opined that "by implication" Symeonidis was forced to sign, as otherwise, Symeonidis feared Baboudjian would not receive necessary care. Although the contract did not violate public policy per se, and was not entered into through unconscionable means, Symeonidis perceived herself to have no real alternative but to sign it.
Additionally, the Home did not actually expect Symeonidis to pay for Baboudjian's nursing home care out of her own funds, because she and Baboudjian were not related. This factor may have also lulled Symeonidis into a false sense of security about the Admissions Agreement as she might have assumed that, despite her signature, she would not be held personally responsible.
Finally, the court concluded that the sum in dispute, $272,205.66, had not been proven by plaintiff by a preponderance of the evidence. Plaintiff did not proffer any testimony regarding the nature or value of specific services, or of specific charges, only testimony as to the total ...