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The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center Inc v. Gregory J. Blass

June 25, 2012

THE JUDGE ROTENBERG EDUCATIONAL CENTER INC.,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
GREGORY J. BLASS, COMMISSIONER, SUFFOLK COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND SUFFOLK COUNTY,
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arthur D. Spatt United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

SPATT, District Judge.

The Plaintiff in this case, The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center Inc. ("JRC"), seeks payment from the Defendants Suffolk County and the Suffolk County Department of Social Services ("DSS") for educational and housing services that the JRC provided to a disabled young woman from December 5, 2008 to December 15, 2009. The Defendants now move for judgment on the pleadings, dismissing the Plaintiff's claims against them. For the reasons that follow, the Court denies the Defendants' motion.

I. BACKGROUND

The Court previously detailed the facts of this case in an order denying the Defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to serve a timely notice of claim. However, the Court will restate the relevant facts for purposes of the present motion.

The JRC is a Massachusetts non-profit corporation that owns and operates a live-in school for individuals with severe emotional, psychiatric, and behavioral problems, coupled with developmental disabilities. On April 11, 2007, the JRC agreed to care for a nineteen-year-old emotionally and developmentally disabled woman referred to as RP, who had been recently placed in the care and custody of the Suffolk County DSS by a New York State Family Court Judge. The Suffolk County DSS agreed to pay tuition to the JRC for this placement.

Generally, the Suffolk County DSS only provides services for individuals until their twenty-first birthday. See N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 398(6)(h) ( "Commissioners of public welfare and city public welfare officers responsible under the provisions of a special or local law for the children hereinafter specified shall have powers and perform duties as follows: . . . Supervise children who have been cared for away from their families until such children become twenty-one years of age or until they are discharged to their own parents, relatives within the third degree or guardians, or adopted."); see also Vega v. Fox, 457 F. Supp. 2d 172, 185 n.88 (S.D.N.Y. 2006). However, pursuant to Social Services Law § 398(13):

(a) In the case of a child with a handicapping condition who is placed, pursuant to this chapter, in a foster care agency or institution located outside the state, and who attains the age of eighteen, the social services official shall:

(ii) assess the nature of the services required;

(iii) notify the parent or guardian of such child's need for services; and

(iv) upon the written consent of the parent or guardian . . submit a report on the child's need for services after age twenty-one to the department for planning purposes.

(b) Upon the written consent of the parent or guardian, the department shall submit the report received pursuant to paragraph (a) of this subdivision to the council on children and families.

(c) When a child's report is submitted to the council on children and families pursuant to this subdivision, the council shall cooperate with adult service providers, such as the department of social services, the office of mental retardation and developmental disabilities, the office of mental health and the office of vocational rehabilitation of the education department in planning and coordinating such child's return to New York state for adult services. The council shall arrange with the appropriate state agency for the development of a recommendation of all appropriate in-state programs operated, licensed, certified or authorized by such agency and which may be available when such child attains the age of twenty-one. . . .

Thus, the Suffolk County DSS's responsibilities for RP included assisting her in obtaining appropriate adult social services to commence when she turned twenty-one. To this end, on December 7, 2007, approximately six months before RP's twenty-first birthday, which was on June 30, 2008, the Suffolk County DSS and the JRC filed paperwork with the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities ("OMRDD"), seeking adult social services for RP from the OMRDD. See Flowers v. Webb, 575 F. Supp. 1450, 1453 (E.D.N.Y. 1983) ("New York State's Mental Hygiene Law ("MHL") §§ 13.01 and 33.03 entitle mentally retarded citizens of New York to care, treatment and rehabilitation. MHL § 13.07 delegates this responsibility to the OMRDD, an autonomous office within the State Department of Mental Hygiene.").

However, on June 25, 2008, just five days before RP's twenty-first birthday, the OMRDD found that RP did not qualify for benefits from OMRDD. Nevertheless, the OMRDD agreed to pay for RP to remain at the JRC past her twenty-first birthday, pending an appeal of this finding.

On September 9, 2008, while the administrative appeal was pending, a Transmittal was sent to the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) indicating that RP was in need of adult services and a residential placement. JRC was then advised by OMH that no housing was available and that it would be notified of future openings.

On October 21, 2008, an administrative hearing was held at the Defendants' offices to reconsider OMRDD's denial of RP's eligibility to receive services. At that time, RP's clinician and case manager from JRC testified that RP did in fact meet all of OMRDD's eligibility requirements.

Nevertheless, on December 5, 2008, a designee of the New York Department of Health Commissioner confirmed that RP was not eligible for OMRDD services. See MHL § 13(f) ("Nothing in this section shall be construed to create an entitlement to adult services."). In connection with this finding, OMRDD ceased to pay for RP's stay at the JRC. Shortly thereafter, on January 12, 2009, the OMRDD expressly disclaimed responsibility to provide services for RP, and on January 14, 2009, the Suffolk County DSS did the same. When employees of the JRC requested direction from the Suffolk County DSS as to where RP should be placed, the Suffolk County DSS directed that RP be taken to a Suffolk County homeless shelter. They advised that it was the Agency's standard procedure because RP was past the age of twenty-one and no longer DSS's responsibility. However, feeling that "it would be unconscionable to leave RP in a homeless shelter without a plan, without housing, and without adequate supervision," (2d Am. Compl., ¶ 37), the JRC staff continued to house RP at the Center, despite the fact that no public agency was paying for her tuition. JRC acknowledges that the New York State Department of Health Commissioner's office was unwilling to take responsibility for her or make any efforts to provide RP with any further assistance.

At the time of these events, RP did not have any identified family or community ties, and the director of the JRC believed that she was not capable of representing herself in any further appeal proceedings. The JRC's director therefore petitioned the Suffolk County Supreme Court to appoint a guardian for RP, and on April 13, 2009, a Judge in the Suffolk County Model Guardianship Part granted this petition. RP's new guardian then arranged for her to be placed in a "community residence" in Suffolk County, and RP was released to that residence on December 15, 2009.

Neither the Suffolk County DSS nor New York State paid for RP's stay at the JRC from December 5, 2008 through December 15, 2009. Therefore, on December 15, 2009, the day RP was released to a community residence, the JRC sent a statement to the Suffolk County DSS and to Suffolk County detailing $245,787 in unpaid tuition charges for RP. On March 12, 2010, the JRC also served Suffolk County with a notice of claim for this charge, and on April 29, 2010, it sent a similar demand letter to the Suffolk County DSS. Neither Suffolk County nor the Suffolk County DSS paid the invoice sent by the JRC.

On August 9, 2010, the JRC commenced this action against the Suffolk County DSS, as well as the New York State Office of Mental Health. The Plaintiff ultimately amended its complaint twice, withdrawing its claims against the New York State Office of Mental Health and alleging new claims against Suffolk County. Presently, the Plaintiff asserts four quasi-contract causes of action against both of the Defendants: (1) breach of implied contract, (2) unjust enrichment, (3) restitution, and (4) quantum meruit. The Plaintiff's basic theory underlying all of these claims is that the Suffolk County DSS and Suffolk County either implicitly agreed - or in fairness should have agreed - to pay for RP's care at the JRC.

The Defendants now move for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) ("Rule 12(c)"). They argue that the JRC has failed to allege: (1) that the Defendants were legally responsible for RP's care at JRC during the period of December 5, 2008, to December 15, 2009; (2) that the Defendants agreed to be responsible, either implicitly or explicitly, for RP's care at JRC during the period of December 5, 2008, to December 15, 2009; or (3) that JRC submitted demands, bills, invoices or statements to the Defendants during the period of December 5, 2008 to December 15, 2009, regarding charges for RP's care at JRC within that period. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the Plaintiff has adequately alleged that the Defendants had a duty to RP, and thus the Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied.

II. DISCUSSION

A. As to the Legal Standard for Judgment on the Pleadings

In general, "the standard for addressing a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is the same as that for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim." Cleveland v. Caplaw Enters., 448 F.3d 518, 521 (2d Cir. 2006).

Under the now well-established Twombly standard, a complaint should be dismissed only if it does not contain enough allegations of fact to state a claim for relief that is "plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929, 570, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1974, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007). The Second Circuit has explained that, after Twombly, the Court's inquiry under Rule 12(b)(6) is guided by two principles. Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66 (2d Cir. 2009) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009)).

"First, although 'a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint,' that 'tenet' 'is inapplicable to legal conclusions,' and '[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.'" Id. at 72 (quoting Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949). " 'Second, only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss' and '[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'" Id. (quoting Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950). Thus, "[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and . . . determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement of relief." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950.

In considering a motion to dismiss, this Court accepts as true the factual allegations set forth in the complaint and draws all reasonable inferences in the Plaintiffs' favor. Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 118, 110 S. Ct. 975, 979, 108 L. Ed. 2d 100 (1990); In re NYSE Specialists Secs. Litig., 503 F.3d 89, 91 (2d Cir. 2007). Only if this Court is satisfied that "the complaint cannot state any set of facts that would entitle the plaintiff to relief" will it grant dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Hertz Corp. v. City of N.Y., 1 F.3d 121, 125 (2d Cir. 1993). The issue on a motion to dismiss is "not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims." Todd v. Exxon Corp., 275 F.3d 191, 198 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U. S. 232, 236, 94 S. Ct. 1683, 40 L. Ed. 2d 90 (1974)).

B. As to the Plaintiff's Legal Theory

The Plaintiff is seeking recovery under the doctrine of restitution, which is a form of equitable relief. There are various rubrics under which one can recover restitution for benefits it voluntarily conferred, including quasi-contract, unjust enrichment, and quantum meruit. These rubrics are not necessary mutually exclusive and often blend together. See Cooper v. Salomon Bros. Inc., 1 F.3d 82, 86 (2d Cir. 1993) ("Although the complaint itself fails to specify the basis for relief, the court interpreted his complaint as seeking restitution damages for unjust enrichment under a theory of quasi-contract, in essence a claim for quantum meruit."). "Because the term 'restitution' entered the legal lexicon relatively recently, its use is often a source of confusion among courts and commentators." F.T.C. v. Bronson Ptnrs., LLC, 654 F.3d 359, 370 (2d Cir. 2011).

Here, the Plaintiff does not clearly articulate any one theory for recovery, but conflates several equitable doctrines. This is understandable, as several courts have found that quantum meruit, unjust enrichment, and restitution claims "[a]re not separate causes of action under New York law, but are instead conceptualized as different facets of a single quasi contract cause of action and should be treated as such." DeSilva v. North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health Sys., Inc., No. 10 Civ. 1341, 2012 WL 748760, at *9 n.12 (E.D.N.Y. March 7, 2012). See, e.g., Mid-Hudson Catskill Rural Migrant Ministry, Inc. v. Fine Host Corp., 418 F.3d 168, 175 (2d Cir. 2005) (analyzing "quantum meruit and unjust enrichment together as a single quasi contract claim," because quantum meruit simply describes "one measure of liability for the breach" of a quasi-contract); Newman & Schwartz v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., Inc., 102 F.3d 660, 663 (2d Cir. 1996) ("Counts One and Three for quantum meruit and unjust enrichment were quite properly subsumed by the district court into a single count for restitution").

The Court agrees that in the instant case, the Plaintiff essentially asserts one cause of action for quasi-contract seeking restitution. Thus, the Court will address the merits of the Plaintiff's four causes of action simultaneously as one claim, grounded on breach of ...


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