“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This Scarecrow of a suit, has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to total disagreement as to all the premises.”
Charles Dickens wrote the novel Bleak House as a criticism of a legal system out of control. The case in the novel entitled Jarndyce v. Jarndyce has become a catchphrase for a nonsensical, unending legal proceeding that resulted in a judgment that was eaten up by costs. Third District Court Judge for Salt Lake County, Deno Himonas, referred to Houghton v. Department of Health as “Utah’s Bleak House.” In fact, the Utah State Supreme Court referenced this fictional case in one of its decisions.
To quote Dickens:
“Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality… Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.”
Fortunately, the parties to Houghton have fared much better than the fictional plaintiffs and a final resolution has almost been reached. In Charles Dickens’ classic novel, the lawsuit spanned generations, with no one left who understood how the case even began, and the entire estate was consumed by the cost of the legal proceedings.
The Houghton case was filed in 1995 against the state of Utah to challenge the State’s failure to pay it’s fair share of a Medicaid recipient’s legal fees, when the recipient paid a lawyer to get a Medicaid lien reimbursed. The state statute required that the state pay a portion of a recipient’s attorney’s fees if the recipient goes through the expense of getting a lawyer and secures pay back of the state’s lien.
The law firm Robert B. Sykes & Associates filed this lawsuit when one of our clients, who had been in a car accident, was left with very little after Medicaid’s lien was paid out of his settlement. We found that there were other similar cases where Medicaid lien payments left the injured parties with little or nothing as well. Thus, began a sixteen-year class action suit against the state.
The Class of members begin in 1991 and continues through 2005. During much of that time, the State failed to pay what it legally owed to recipients who were making lien repayments to the State. The requirement was that the State had to pay the recipient the proportionate share of the attorney’s fees on the lien recovery. So if the lawyer charged a 33% fee for their services then the State must reduce it’s lien by 33%. If it failed to do so the recipient was “shortchanged” and is owed a refund of the difference with 10% interest per year.
Protracted legal battles have been fought since 2008 over who was a legitimate class member and the proper amount of each claim. The Attorney General ably represented the State, and argued that the common fund should be lower. Class counsel, Robert B. Sykes & Associates, represented the Class and argued for a higher common fund. Eventually the case was settled and most of our class members will be receiving 100% on average of what they were originally owed.
Currently, Governor Herbert has approved the settlement, and Senate Joint Resolution 19, approving the settlement, has passed State Senate and is in the House of Representatives waiting for approval. After this approval it will go back to court for a fairness hearing to be approved by Judge Himonas. We anticipate that payments will be made in early July 2011.
This case was brought forward to assist Utah’s poorest citizens. We are excited and pleased to have received a fair result for these class members who have waited all of these years for a resolution. Because of this litigation, the Office of Recovery Services changed its policies and began to follow the law requiring payment of its fair share of the cost of litigation that was borne by Medicaid recipients. It has taken a long time, and it has been a hard road, but we have never been sorry we went down that road.
“We asked a gentleman by us if he knew what cause was on. He told us Jarndyce and Jarndyce. We asked him if he knew what was doing in it. He said ‘really, no he did not, nobody ever did’, but as well as he could make out, it was over. ‘Over for the day?’ we asked him. No, he said, ‘over for good.’” – Charles Dickens Bleak House