Ruling pending on motion to dismiss Unicoi County ambulance lawsuit

Sue Guinn Legg • Mar 16, 2019 at 12:40 AM

ERWIN — A little more than two weeks away from the expiration of Unicoi County’s contract with MedicOne Medical Response, it appears the county has no signed contract for future ambulance service.

In a Chancery Court hearing of the county’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges the county’s bidding process for a new ambulance contract was flawed, Chancellor John Rambo asked an attorney representing the county on Friday, “Is there a contract in place?”

“I was afraid you would ask me that,” attorney Sarah Shults responded. “There is no evidence in the record and I do not have a contract signed by both parties to give you,” she said.

Beyond the lack of signed contract, County Attorney Doug Shults told Rambo the new contract negotiated with MedicOne requires interlocal agreements with the towns of Erwin and Unicoi that have not yet been entered into.

A joint meeting between the county and town of Erwin to discuss the interlocal agreement is scheduled for next week. Unicoi Town recorder Michael Borders picked up a copy of the interlocal agreement on Friday and said a special called meeting of the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen may be needed to for the board to consider it before the expiration of the current contract.

Without the interlocal agreements, Doug Shults told Rambo on Friday, the new contract with MedicOne will only provide ambulance service in the unincorporated areas of the county. Sarah Shults added, “And who knows what MedicOne would want to do in that situation.”

When Rambo speculated that without inclusion of the towns, the payment MedicOne would require for the contract would be different, Sarah Shults said, “Exactly,” and noted the potential for the company’s loss of nursing home transport calls inside the town of Erwin.

Nursing home transports are typically more profitable to ambulance service providers because they are reimbursed by Medicaid.

In arguing the county’s motion for dismissal, Sarah Shults told Rambo the petitioner John Day is without standing to bring the lawsuit because he has suffered no injury as a result of the county’s actions.

She further argued the court is without jurisdiction in the matter because Day improperly filed a lawsuit for a declaratory judgement rather than “writ of certiorari” for a court review of the issues.

And she contended Day failed to add MedicOne as an indispensable party to the lawsuit, which asks the court to set aside the company’s new contract and order the county to redo the bidding process.

When Rambo noted “there is an argument” Day’s complaint could be considered a writ of certiorari, Shults countered that Day would still be without standing.

And when Rambo asked if Day is correct in his assertion the county did not follow purchasing laws, would that support the legality element of his standing, Shults responded “Our position is the court would be making all new law.”

“Local governments have the power to provide ambulance service to communities. When you get into the legalities, Mr. Day does not have a dog in that hunt,” she said.

Day countered that his standing is established by case law that addresses illegal diversion of public funds and that his lawsuit challenges the legality of the process by which the county awarded the new contact to MedicOne.

“I challenge the (legality of) expenditure of funds and the contract is the last stage of that expenditure. My standing, my claim is we are about to spend county money on an illegal process. My request is a do-over,” Day said.

Rambo said he would take the pleadings under advisement and issue a ruling in a couple of weeks, either in court on March 29 or in a written ruling.

“It is important for me to get this right. It is significant and an important issue. … In fairness to both parties, the court should spend additional time in review,” he said.