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Wilcox v. Orellano

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

June 24, 2014

LYDIA G. WILCOX, ET AL.
v.
TRISTAN J. ORELLANO

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Sean D. Wallace, Judge.

Argued by: Alan H. Silverberg (Summerfield, Willen, Silverberg & Limsky, LLC on the brief) all of Baltimore, MD. for Appellant.

Argued by: Dana K. Schultz (D. Lee Rutland, Wharton Levin Ehrmantraut & Klein PA on the brief) all of Annapolis, MD. for Appellee.

Panel: Krauser, C.J., Wright, White, Pamela J. (Specially Assigned), JJ. Opinion by Krauser, C.J.

OPINION

Page 128

[217 Md.App. 418] Krauser, C.J.

Subsection 5-119(b) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article[1] permits a party, whose medical malpractice " action or claim" has been " dismissed once . . . without prejudice," because of that party's failure to attach a report of an attesting expert to the certificate of a qualified expert, to re-file that [217 Md.App. 419] " action or claim," so long as it is filed within 60 days from the date of dismissal, regardless of whether the statute of limitations has run. This " savings provision," [2] however, does not apply, under the preceding subsection of section 5-119, that is, subsection 5-119(a), or the " preclusion provision," which precludes the re-filing of a claim or action under the savings provision when the dismissal of the claim or action is a " voluntary dismissal of a civil action or claim by the party who commenced the action or claim."

This appeal requires us to decide whether Lydia Wilcox, appellant, may re-file, under the " savings provision," (§ 5-119(b)) her medical malpractice action against Tristan Orellano, M.D., appellee, when her initial medical malpractice action against Dr. Orellano was dismissed by a voluntary stipulation of dismissal signed by both sides to the controversy. The Circuit Court for Prince George's County concluded that that stipulation of dismissal amounted to " a voluntary dismissal . . . by

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the party who commenced the action or claim" under the " preclusion provision" (§ 5-119(a)) and dismissed her re-filed claim. We agree and shall affirm.

Background

Wilcox was referred to Tristan Orellano, M.D., a general surgeon, after an abnormal mammogram. A biopsy then performed by Dr. Orellano confirmed that Wilcox had breast cancer in her right breast. Wilcox thereafter elected to have a lumpectomy,[3] and Dr. Orellano performed that procedure.

During two successive post-operative visits with Dr. Orellano, Wilcox complained to the doctor of swelling, redness, and discomfort in her right breast at the site of the surgery. [217 Md.App. 420] Nonetheless, Dr. Orellano did not prescribe, according to Wilcox, any treatment for those problems. The swelling in Wilcox's right breast persisted and, eight months after the surgery, Wilcox's oncologist determined that she had developed an infection in her right breast at the site of the lumpectomy. For the next nine months, she reported daily to a hospital to have the dressing around the infection changed. But the infection only worsened, and eventually led to the surgical removal of her right breast.

Following that surgery, Wilcox filed a claim with the Health Care Alternative Dispute Resolution Office against Dr. Orellano, together with a certificate of a qualified expert, as required by section 3-2A-04(b) of the Health Care Malpractice Claims Statute.[4] Unfortunately, she failed to attach to the certificate a report of an attesting expert, as required by the same statute, and never sought to correct that mistake.

Ultimately, Wilcox waived arbitration of her claim and filed a complaint, in the Circuit Court for Howard County, against Dr. Orellano, alleging negligence, breach of contract, and loss of consortium, based on the post-operative care and treatment she had received from him. Dr. Orellano answered that complaint and then, three months later, moved to both strike [217 Md.App. 421] Wilcox's certificate of qualified expert and to dismiss Wilcox's complaint. Because Wilcox had never filed a report of her attesting expert, the court, claimed the doctor, was required, under Walzer v. Osborne ,[5] to

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dismiss her complaint without prejudice. But, before a hearing could be held on Dr. Orellano's motion to dismiss, a stipulation of dismissal was signed by the attorneys for both sides and filed. It simply stated: " The parties, by and through their respective attorneys, pursuant to Md. Rule 2-506(a), hereby stipulate and agree to the dismissal without prejudice of this action in its entirety against [Dr. Orellano]."

Less than two weeks later, Wilcox filed another claim with the Health Care Alternative Dispute Resolution Office against Dr. Orellano. With that claim she filed both a certificate of a qualified expert and, for the first time, a report from that expert, as she was required to do by section 3-2A-04(b). After waiving arbitration again, Wilcox filed a complaint, not in the Circuit Court for Howard County (where she had filed her original complaint) but in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County. In her second complaint, she once again alleged negligence, breach of contract, and loss of consortium.[6]

Dr. Orellano, in response, filed an answer and, once again, moved to dismiss, but this time he alleged as grounds for his dismissal request that Wilcox's claim was now barred by the applicable statute of limitations. After the Prince George's County circuit court denied his motion to dismiss, Dr. Orellano filed two motions for reconsideration. Although the first [217 Md.App. 422] motion was denied without a proceeding, a hearing was held on the doctor's second motion for reconsideration.

At the conclusion of that hearing, the circuit court found that the savings provision of section 5-119 " is expressly, by its terms, limited" and that it did not apply where there has been " a voluntary dismissal of a civil action or claim" by stipulation of the parties. What Wilcox should have done " to come within the meaning of the statute," declared the court, was " to have gone to [the] hearing and had the Court dismiss [her claim]." The court therefore concluded that, having in effect " voluntarily dismissed" her action, Wilcox was not entitled to re-file her claim as that claim was now barred by the relevant statute of limitations. That decision prompted this appeal.

Discussion

Wilcox contends that she was permitted to file her second claim under section 5-119(b) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, the " savings provision," because her first claim was voluntarily dismissed not by " the party who commenced the action," but by a voluntary stipulation of dismissal executed by the parties. In short, she claims that the limitation imposed by the preclusion provision (§ 5-119(a)) on the savings provision (§ 5-119(b)), which precludes a " voluntary dismissal of a civil action or claim by the party who commenced the action or claim," applies only to a unilateral voluntary dismissal and not one of a bilateral nature, such as a voluntary stipulation. Dr. Orellano responds that the language of the preclusion provision (§ 5-119(a)) clearly covers a voluntary dismissal by stipulation. Nor is there any reason, he suggests, to draw a distinction between unilateral and bilateral voluntary dismissals.

Thus the task before us is to determine the proper construction to be accorded

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section 5-119. We begin that task by noting that the " cardinal rule" of statutory construction " is to ascertain and effectuate [the] legislative intent" in enacting the statute, Mayor of Balt. v. Chase, 360 Md. 121, 128, 756 A.2d 987 (2000), and that " [t]he primary source from which we glean this intention is the language of the statute itself," [217 Md.App. 423] Subsequent Injury Fund v. Herman, 89 Md.App. 741, 747, 599 A.2d 875 (1992) (quoting Mazor v. Dep't of Corr., 279 Md. 355, 360, 369 A.2d 82 (1977)). If, however, " the true legislative intent cannot readily be determined from the statutory language alone," we may consider other " recognized indicia" of legislative purpose, including " how the statute relates to other laws; [and] the legislative history, including the derivation of the statute, comments and explanations regarding it by authoritative sources during the legislative process, and amendments proposed or added to it." Witte v. Azarian, 369 Md. 518, 525-26, 801 A.2d 160 (2002).

Section 5-119 states:

Civil actions or claims dismissed for failure to file report:
(a)(1) This section does not apply to a voluntary dismissal of a civil action or claim by the party who commenced the action or claim.
(2) This section applies only to a civil action or claim that is dismissed once for failure to file a report in accordance with § 3-2A-04(b)(3) of this article.
Commencement of new civil action or claim:
(b) If a civil action or claim is commenced by a party within the applicable period of limitations and is dismissed without prejudice, the party may commence a new civil action or claim for the same cause against the same party or parties on or before the later of:
(1) The expiration of the applicable period of limitations;
(2) 60 days from the date of the dismissal; or
(3) August 1, 2007, if the action or claim was dismissed on or after November 17, 2006, but before June 1, 2007.

In sum, this statutory section applies only to " a civil action or claim that is dismissed once" because of the claimant's failure to attach a report of an attesting expert to the certificate of qualified expert in a medical malpractice action. If the failure to attach that report is the reason for the claim's dismissal, the savings provision (§ 5-119(b)) affords the claimant [217 Md.App. 424] relief by permitting her to " commence a new civil action or claim for the same cause against the same party" within 60 days from the date of the dismissal, even if the statute of limitations has run.

But the preclusion provision (§ 5-119(a)) places limits on this re-filing relief by rendering the statute inapplicable to a " civil action or claim" that is voluntarily dismissed " by the party who commenced the action." Contrary to Dr. Orellano's contention that the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, we believe it is not as clear and unambiguous as the doctor suggests. Indeed, it is not altogether clear from the plain language of the statute whether a stipulation of dismissal signed by the party who commenced the action as well as the opposing party constitutes, beyond peradventure, a voluntary dismissal " by the party who commenced the action," or whether this voluntary dismissal exception to the savings provision is confined to only " unilateral" dismissals by the party who filed the action.

But that ambiguity evaporates when the preclusion provision (§ 5-119(a)) is read in conjunction with Maryland Rule 2-506, which defines a voluntary dismissal of a civil action as follows:

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( a) By notice of dismissal or stipulation.

Except as otherwise provided in these rules or by statute, a party who has filed a complaint . . . may dismiss all or part of the claim without leave of court by filing (1) a notice of dismissal at any time before the adverse party files an answer or (2) by filing a stipulation of dismissal signed by all parties to the claim being dismissed.

Thus, Rule 2-506(a) plainly states[7] that a party, who has filed a claim, may voluntarily dismiss that claim in one of two [217 Md.App. 425] ways: " unilaterally" by dismissing her claim before the adverse party files an answer or " bilaterally" by filing a stipulation of dismissal signed by all parties to the claim being dismissed.[8] That is to say, a voluntary dismissal by stipulation, under Rule 2-506(a), is a voluntary dismissal by a " party who has filed a complaint" and therefore is not entitled to the relief provided by the savings provision (§ 5-119(b)). Hence, the voluntary dismissal of Wilcox's first claim by stipulation precludes a renewal of her claim, if the statute of limitations governing that claim has run.

Nor does the legislative history of section 5-119 suggest we reach a different conclusion. When Senate Bill 309, which was ultimately codified, with changes, as " § 5-119," was first introduced, it applied to any " civil action" that was " dismissed or terminated in a manner other than by a final judgment on the merits." It made no distinction between voluntary and involuntary dismissals, or between dismissals with prejudice or without. SB 309 (2007) (first reading).

Several interested groups, however, voiced concerns about the proposed statute, pointing out that the plaintiff could, under the proposed statute as introduced, " simply voluntarily dismiss a complaint at any time and still be able to re-file the complaint, regardless of any limitations period; " [9] could " keep re-filing amended complaints until [the plaintiff] is able to state a viable cause of action; " [10] or could re-file even if the case " was dismissed for a just reason or because that plaintiff [217 Md.App. 426] did not act diligently or promptly." [11] Presumably, in light of these concerns, Senate Bill 309 was subsequently amended so that the proposed statute would " not apply to a voluntary dismissal of a civil action by the party who commenced the action." [12] But there is no indication that the Legislature,

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with this amendment, intended to exclude from the proposed statute's purview only those claims that were voluntarily and unilaterally dismissed. Rather, by excluding voluntary dismissals " by the party who commenced the action," the amendment encompassed both ways in which a party could voluntarily dismiss, under Rule 2-506(a), her claim.

We feel compelled to acknowledge, however, that a dismissal by stipulation of all parties does not give rise to the same concerns that were raised during the drafting of what was ultimately codified as " § 5-119." Those apprehensions, as noted earlier, focused on a claimant's total freedom to voluntarily dismiss a claim or action and then re-file it at any time and as many times as the claimant wished, until it stated a viable cause of action, regardless of whether the applicable limitations period had run. Arguably, a stipulation of dismissal, which requires the consent of both sides to a controversy, mitigates, if not eliminates, those concerns. Nonetheless, it is clear to us that when section 5-119 is read in combination with Rule 2-506 -- a rule that was in existence at the time of the enactment of section 5-119[13] and therefore presumably known [217 Md.App. 427] by those who drafted that section -- section 5-119 clearly encompasses both unilateral and bilateral voluntary dismissals. And the legislative history offers nothing to indicate that that construction, which is completely consistent with the well-established axioms of statutory construction,[14] is flawed.

Finally, we wish to mention that, if the bald stipulation filed by the parties had contained language indicating that Wilcox would be thereafter free to re-file her claim under the savings provision (§ 5-119(b)), we would certainly feel more pressed to reach a different result, as did a New York appellate court in dealing with similar legislation. George v. Mt. Sinai Hospital, 47 N.Y.2d 170, 390 N.E.2d 1156, 417 N.Y.S.2d 231 (1979). There, the Court of Appeals of New York addressed the question of whether the plaintiff could re-file, under New York's " savings statute," [15] a civil action after the parties to that action had filed a stipulation of voluntary dismissal when that statute permitted a plaintiff to commence a new civil " action" within six months after the first action was " terminated," provided that the first action was not " terminated" by " a voluntary discontinuance." [16] N.Y. C.P.L.R. 205(a)

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(Consol. [217 Md.App. 428] 1999, 2014 Supp.). And, much like Maryland Rule 2-506(a), which allows " a stipulation of dismissal signed by all parties to the claim," to be a voluntary dismissal by the party, the applicable New York rule deemed " a stipulation in writing signed by the attorneys of record for all parties" to be a " voluntary discontinuance" by the " party asserting a claim." N.Y. C.P.L.R. 3217(a)(2) (Consol. 2002).

Although the action at issue was " terminated by means of a voluntary discontinuance," the New York appellate court nonetheless upheld the re-filing of that action because the stipulation of dismissal " specifically stated" that it was " without prejudice to [the] plaintiff's right . . . to commence any action pursuant to the authority" of the New York savings statute. George, 390 N.E.2d at 1162. After noting the expansive reading that must be given the protections provided by a remedial law, such as the statute in question, the New York court explained that the " patent purpose of this disclaimer [was] to preserve whatever rights [the] plaintiff would have had to commence a new action pursuant to the statute had the prior action been terminated by order of dismissal rather than by voluntary discontinuance." It then went on to state that it " perceive[d] no reason why this agreement between the parties should not be given its intended effect." Id. " Absent some violation of the law or conflict with interests of the public," the court continued, " the parties to an action have considerable freedom to waive strict compliance with procedures which might otherwise delay or preclude judicial resolution of the merits of a dispute in a particular situation." Id. But the New York Court of Appeals warned " where the prior action has been terminated by means of a voluntary discontinuance pursuant to a stipulation which contains no express statement of contrary intent, the statute simply does not authorize a subsequent action, regardless of the actual motives of the parties," id., which is, in essence, what occurred here.

In any event, whether a stipulation of dismissal explicitly providing that it was without prejudice to the claimant's right [217 Md.App. 429] to re-file the same action is not now before us and must be left for another panel of this Court to decide on another day.

ORDER OF THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY AFFIRMED. COSTS TO BE PAID BY APPELLANT.


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