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Naman v. Chiropractic Life Center, Inc.

Supreme Court of Alabama

May 3, 2019

Kathryn Naman
Chiropractic Life Center, Inc.

          Appeal from Mobile Circuit Court (CV-16-900688)

          MITCHELL, Justice.

         Chiropractic Life Center, Inc. ("CLC"), sued Kathryn Naman in the Mobile District Court alleging that Naman failed to pay for chiropractic care she had received at CLC. The district court entered a judgment in favor of Naman, which CLC did not appeal. Naman thereafter sued CLC and its owner, Dr. Christy Agren, in the Mobile Circuit Court, alleging that they had wrongfully brought the collection action against Naman. The circuit court dismissed the claim against Dr. Agren and ultimately entered a summary judgment in favor of CLC. Naman appeals. We affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

         Facts and Procedural History

         In mid-2006, Naman and her former husband, Elias Naman ("Alec"), began receiving chiropractic care from Dr. Agren at CLC's facility in Mobile.[1] Naman became a patient of CLC first, but she asserts that, once Alec also became a CLC patient, they enrolled in a "family plan" that entitled Alec to receive two treatments a month and her to receive one treatment a month for a monthly fee of $72, which was automatically debited from Alec's checking account. Naman states that her insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama ("BCBS"), also paid CLC up to $600 per year for her chiropractic care. CLC denies that Naman and Alec were enrolled in a family plan with those terms, and no document has been produced outlining their enrollment in such a plan. Nevertheless, Naman and Alec regularly visited CLC for five years, and Naman states that they were happy with the chiropractic care they received. Naman states that neither she nor Alec ever received notice during this time that they owed CLC money or that there was any problem with their payments.

         On October 20, 2011, Naman was injured in an automobile accident. She thereafter received chiropractic care at CLC's facility for her injuries. Naman acknowledges that she was told that the treatment she received for injuries related to the automobile accident would be billed separately from her regularly scheduled visits. It also appears that the companies providing automobile insurance for both Naman and the other driver involved in the accident, as well as BCBS, were involved in the billing and payment process for the treatment of Naman's injuries. Naman executed agreements with CLC authorizing it to seek payment directly from those insurance companies, and she signed an agreement acknowledging that she was ultimately responsible for paying the bills associated with the treatment for her injuries.

         Naman last received chiropractic care at CLC's facility on June 27, 2012.[2] Naman received a statement from CLC dated November 14, 2012, indicating that she had an outstanding balance of $4, 923 on her account. That statement itemized charges for visits approximately every week from January 2012 through June 2012, but the largest charge -- $4, 521 -- was dated June 1, 2012, and was described on the statement only as "balance forward." Naman states that both she and Alec sought clarification from CLC over the next few months regarding the balance-forward charge, but that they never received it. On February 21, 2013, Naman made what she calls a "good faith" payment of $2, 000 to CLC, even though she still did not understand how CLC had calculated the balance it said she owed.

         On March 7, 2013, Bayside Recovery Service, Inc., sent Naman notice that it was seeking to collect a debt of $4, 726 on behalf of CLC.[3] An attorney associated with Bayside Recovery Service subsequently sent Naman a similar notice requesting payment of both the $4, 726 debt and attorney fees of $709. Naman responded to both notices by stating that she disputed the amount of the debt and wanted an itemization of the charges. In June 2013, Naman tendered a check for $573.40 to CLC, which she asserted, by noting on the check, was a full and final payment for her debt. CLC refused the offered payment and, on August 2, 2013, initiated the collection action in the district court.

         During the ensuing nonjury trial, the district court heard testimony from Naman, Alec, and Dr. Agren. That testimony, a transcript of which is included in the record, indicates that CLC was unable to explain the debt Naman allegedly owed. Dr. Agren attributed her difficulty explaining the balance on Naman's account to the complications associated with dealing with multiple insurance companies and the fact that CLC had changed the software system it used for billing. Naman and Alec, however, asserted that Dr. Agren was unable to explain the balance because CLC was trying to defraud them and/or the insurance companies. At any rate, on April 8, 2014, the district court entered a judgment in favor of Naman, explaining that CLC "failed in its burden of proof" and that the court was not "reasonably satisfied of the merits of [CLC's] claim." CLC did not appeal that judgment.

         Almost two years later, on April 5, 2016, Naman sued Dr. Agren and CLC for bringing the collection action against her.[4]The exact cause of action asserted is not clear on the face of the complaint. Naman generally alleged, however, that Dr. Agren and CLC had filed the collection action "without probable cause to believe that the monies being claimed were owed by [Naman]" and "with malice, and in a fraudulent effort to obtain monies that the [defendants were] not entitled to receive."

         Dr. Agren and CLC thereafter moved the circuit court either to dismiss Naman's action or to enter a summary judgment in their favor because, they argued, Naman had failed to properly assert an abuse-of-process or malicious-prosecution claim. In her response, Naman clarified that she intended to assert a malicious-prosecution claim and argued that it was premature to dismiss or to enter a summary judgment on that claim before any discovery was conducted.

         On January 3, 2017, the circuit court ruled on Dr. Agren and CLC's motion asking the court to dismiss Naman's claims or, in the alternative, to enter a summary judgment in their favor. To the extent Naman's complaint asserted an abuse-of-process claim, the circuit court held, that claim was due to be dismissed. The circuit court also concluded that Naman had failed to allege facts that would support a malicious-prosecution claim against Dr. Agren, and it accordingly dismissed that claim. The circuit court held, however, that summary judgment would be premature on the malicious-prosecution claim Naman had asserted against CLC, and the court allowed discovery on that claim to proceed.

         On April 26, 2018, following discovery, CLC filed a new motion asking the circuit court to enter a summary judgment on Naman's malicious-prosecution claim. Naman opposed the motion. On May 25, 2018, the circuit court granted CLC's motion and entered a summary judgment in favor of CLC. On June 29, 2018, Naman filed a notice of appeal to this Court.

         Nature ...

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