Telling the Truth Can’t Be Defamatory

After Health Provider Entity’s Management is Arrested for Fraud Reporting Suspicion to Beneficiaries is not Defamation

Post 4789

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It is Chutzpah to Charge Defamation About a True Statement

BrainBuilders, LLC appealed from an order granting summary judgment in favor of defendants Optum, Inc., et al (collectively, defendants) in Brainbuilders, LLC v. Optum, Inc., Optum Services, Inc., et al, No. A-0621-22, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division (April 19, 2024) resolved claims of defamation.

FACTS

Letters dated July 25, 2017 and August 2017 sent by the Optum entities to BrainBuilders’ patients following an investigation into purported fraud by individuals associated with BrainBuilders.

BrainBuilders provides healthcare services to children on the autism spectrum. As an out-of-network or non-participating healthcare provider, BrainBuilders receives reimbursement for claims only if a patient’s health insurance plan allowed “out-of-network benefits” or the insurer made a “single case agreement” for the patient’s care.

The Optum entities are the health claims administrator for health plans issued or administered by the Oxford entities and UHC entities. The Optum entities do not sell or issue health insurance policies. Rather, they provide support for defendants who issued health insurance policies to individual insureds. The Optum entities also evaluate insurance claims submitted by providers to its affiliated insurers, including BrainBuilders. The Optum entities often investigate whether a provider has requested reimbursement beyond the provider’s entitlement, such as by misrepresenting or inflating the services provided.

In June 2017, four individuals related to the management of BrainBuilders were arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud Medicaid. A criminal complaint, alleging misappropriation of funds, was filed against several individuals affiliated with BrainBuilders. The arrests were reported in the news media and the Optum entities learned of the arrests on July 14, 2017.

Subsequently the Optum entities sent letters to BrainBuilders’ patients insured by the Oxford and UHC entities (July 2017 letters). The July 2017 letters explained the Optum entities were suspending payment for services provided by BrainBuilders due to potential insurance fraud and other violations of state and federal law.

BrainBuilders sued defendants asserting the following causes of action:

  1. conspiracy;
  2. tortious interference with business relations;
  3. tortious interference with prospective economic advantage;
  4. negligence trade libel;
  5. defamation, libel, and slander; and
  6. unjust enrichment and
  7. quantum meruit.

BrainBuilders alleged the statements in the July and August 2017 letters were false and defamatory. Defendants moved for summary judgment and the motion judge granted defendants’ motion and dismissed BrainBuilders’ claims with prejudice. Further, around the same time period, the judge noted the Optum entities “separately uncovered evidence suggesting BrainBuilders was engaged in fraud, waste, or abuse.” Thus, the judge concluded, “[w]hen read with context, no reasonable person” could interpret the July or August 2017 letters “as fallacious or injurious.

The law of defamation is grounded on the principle that people should be free to enjoy their reputations unimpaired by false and defamatory attacks. To prevail on a defamation claim, a party must demonstrate: (1) the assertion of a false and defamatory statement concerning another; (2) the unprivileged publication of that statement to a third party; and (3) fault amounting at least to negligence by the publisher.

True Statements are not Actionable as Defamation.

Our courts have stated that true statements are absolutely protected under the First Amendment from liability for defamation. The allegedly defamatory statements in the July and August 2017 letters related to BrainBuilders’ “potential fraud,” potential “violations of state and federal law,” and concerns for “quality of care or member safety.” It is uncontroverted that several of BrainBuilders’ officers were arrested for conspiracy to defraud Medicaid in association with “income they received from BrainBuilders.” These individuals were arrested because they potentially committed fraud. Additionally, the arrests raised legitimate concerns regarding the quality of care rendered by BrainBuilders.

Moreover, BrainBuilders claimed it conferred only benefits to the insured members and not defendants. Under these circumstances, the Appellate Division was satisfied BrainBuilders failed to proffer any support for its unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims.

ZALMA OPINION

It takes a certain amount of unmitigated gall to sue for defamation an entity that reported that the plaintiffs officers were arrested for Medicaid fraud, a major felony. Their officers were arrested – albeit I could find no report on the result of the charges – for insurance fraud, telling their customers about the arrests in good faith is not defamation since the statements were true.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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