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People ex rel Department of Public Health v. Wiley

May 26, 2004


[6] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County Honorable Paddy J. McNamara, Judge Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Karnezis

[8]  Plaintiff, the Illinois Department of Public Health (the Department), brought this action against defendant, Thelma E. Wiley, M.D., for defendant's alleged failure to comply with the terms of the medical school scholarship contracts she entered into with plaintiff pursuant to the Family Practice Residency Act (the Act) (110 ILCS 935/1 et seq. (West 2002)). The Department alleged that plaintiff breached the contracts and sought triple damages pursuant to section 10 of the Act (110 ILCS 935/10 (West 2002)). The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the Department, denied defendant's motion for summary judgment and denied defendant's posttrial motion for modification of judgment. Defendant appeals, arguing that the court erred because the parties had a settlement agreement settling all claims under the scholarship contracts; genuine issues of material fact existed regarding whether defendant breached her contractual obligations; and the triple damages were not recoverable under Illinois law in a breach of contract action because they were punitive. We affirm.

[9]  Background

[10]   Defendant entered medical school at the University of Illinois in 1985 and graduated in 1989. For each of the four academic years, the Department awarded defendant a scholarship for payment of her tuition, fees and living expenses pursuant to the Act . The purpose of the Act was to establish a program awarding scholarships to eligible medical students who "agree to practice in areas of the State demonstrating the greatest need for more professional medical care. The program shall encourage family practice physicians to locate in areas where health manpower shortages exist and to increase the total number of family practice physicians in the State." 110 ILCS 935/2 (West 2002). The Department administers the program and promulgated rules and regulations to that end (77 Ill. Adm. Code §590.10 et seq. (2003)).

[11]   Defendant executed a "Scholarship Contract" with the Department for each of the four academic years. In exchange for each year's scholarship funds, she agreed to serve as a "full-time primary care physician engaged in direct patient care" in a "designated shortage area" for one year for each year that she received such funds, with a maximum service obligation of three years. The Department maintains a list of approved shortage area practice sites. Repayment of the service obligation would begin 30 days after defendant received her medical license except that service could be deferred until she completed a Department-approved residency program in primary care medicine. In that event, service would begin 30 days after completion of the residency.

[12]   The contracts required defendant to obtain the Department's approval of her practice site and, "upon request," to confirm, in writing, the location and office hours of the practice. The Department's rules required her to enter into a contract with the Department approving her service selection as fulfilling the requirements of the Act. 77 Ill. Adm. Code §590.240(h) (2003). Without such approval, a recipient's "advanced clinical training" or "time in practice" at an unapproved location does not meet the recipient's service obligations. 77 Ill. Adm. Code §§590.240(d), (e) (2003).

[13]   Pursuant to a triple damages provision in the Act (110 ILCS 935/10 (West 2002)), the contracts provided that, if defendant failed to perform any of the terms and obligations under the contracts, she would have to repay three times the amount she received. Monetary payments were to begin within 30 days after the student failed to perform under the contract and were to be made in equal monthly installments either within the period remaining on the service obligation or as otherwise approved by the Department. If a student failed to pay an installment, the Department could file suit to collect the sums owed and, if successful, collect all costs of the lawsuit from defendant. The contracts required defendant to notify the Department within seven days of any change to her student status, address and/or place of employment.

[14]   Defendant testified that she understood all the terms of the contracts at the time she signed them and agreed to those terms. She received a total of $52,465 in scholarship funds over the four years and was obligated to repay the State with three years of service. Defendant obtained approval from the Department to defer her repayment obligation until she completed her internal medicine residency at the University of Illinois Chicago Medical Center. Her residency would be completed in June 1992.

[15]   On January 13, 1992, the Department sent defendant a letter stating that it had not received any indication from her regarding her selection of an underserved practice site and encouraged her to contact the Department for assistance with her selection. Defendant testified that she knew that she had to begin her service obligation 30 days after completion of her residency, but that she was interested in pursuing a postresidency fellowship in gastroenterology following her residency. Therefore, in February 1992, prior to the completion of her residency, she contacted Thomas Yocum, the Department's coordinator of the scholarship program, to inquire about pursuing the fellowship. She testified that she told Yocum of her fellowship plans after residency and "it wasn't approved but he indicated that some agreement could be worked out as far as repaying the service." She understood that to mean that "during or after [her] fellowship, [she] would be able to work as a primary care [physician] or in the field of primary care to repay [her] service debt." Yocum told her that "the fellowship would probably not meet the requirements of the [Act], but that her service requirements could be worked out." The Department's rules provide that "[u]pon written approval," service could be deferred until 30 days following completion of a fellowship in a primary care specialty. 77 Ill. Adm. Code §590.240(c) (2003). Defendant acknowledged that she did not receive written approval from the Department for a fellowship nor a concomitant deferment of her service obligation during the fellowship period.

[16]   On June 26, 1992, Yocum sent defendant a letter reminding her that she had to start either her service obligation or repayment within 30 days of the end of her residency and requesting notification of her proposed service location so that the Department could verify that it met the service requirements. Defendant did not respond to the letter. Instead, following completion of her residency on June 30, 1992, defendant immediately began a three year fellowship in gastroenterology at the University of Illinois Chicago Medical Center. On October 15, 1992, Yocum sent defendant a letter informing her that, since her residency ended in June 1992 and there was "no indication" that she began repaying her scholarship obligation within the requisite 30 days, he assumed that she had "elected" to monetarily repay it. Yocum stated that defendant owed $157,395, triple the amount awarded to her, which had to be repaid over three years, the length of her service term, and that he would send her a repayment contract. On December 2, 1992, Yocum sent defendant four copies of a monetary repayment contract and requested that she sign and return it as soon as possible. On February 11, 1993, the manager of the Department's accounts receivable unit sent defendant a letter requesting a check for $157,395 within 15 days and informing defendant that, if the check was not received, legal and/or collection procedures would be initiated, and that referral to the State Comptroller's office was an automatic procedure on any accounts referred to a collection agency. Defendant did not respond to any of the letters. She admitted that she had no reason to believe she did not receive them.

[17]   According to a Department memo detailing the history of defendant's case, when defendant failed to contact the Department, it referred defendant's case to a collection agency in March 1993, to the Comptroller's office for involuntary withholding on March 24, 1993, and to the Attorney General's office "for action" in April 1993. Defendant confirmed that she did not contact anyone regarding the contracts until the collection agency spoke to her and demanded the $157,395 as a lump sum payment. Defendant refused to deal with the collection agency and, on April 8, 1993, called Yocum in Springfield. Yocum's memorialization of the call states that he referred her to the Attorney General's office after defendant asked him whether "she could work out something."

[18]   Defendant testified that she spoke to the Attorney General's office, discussed how much she could afford to pay and agreed to $100 per month. She stated that she did not agree to pay $157,395 to the Department because her "intent was to still to try to repay [her] debt in service." She made "some agreement for payment but [her] plan was to still try to work out some deal with repaying the service" because she knew that she did not have the money to repay the debt. She stated that she did inform whomever she spoke with that she intended to repay through service. She acknowledged that that person did not indicate that repayment through service was still an option.

[19]   On June 24, 1993, the Attorney General's office sent a letter to defendant enclosing an original and a copy of an "Installment Agreement for payment of your debt." The letter requested the defendant sign the original agreement, have it notarized and return it "as soon as possible with [her] first payment of $100.00 which is due July 15, 1993." The "Installment Agreement" stated that defendant owed the State of Illinois $157,395 in accordance with section 20 of the Act. It provided that defendant agreed to pay $100 a month for 24 months and $4,305 per month for 36 months. The first $100 payment was due on July 15, 1993, and subsequent payments were due monthly thereafter. If a payment was not received by a scheduled due date, the entire contract amount would be immediately due and owing. The contract stated that "[u]pon payment in full, Dr. Thelma E. Wiley shall be entitled to a full release from any further obligation on [sic] this matter." Defendant received the letter and contract but did not return the contract, send payment or contact either the Department or the Attorney General's office before the July 15, 1993, due date.

[20]   On August 23, 1993, the State Comptroller's office processed a payroll check for defendant. It deducted 25% of the check and on August 24, 1993, sent defendant a letter explaining the withholding and informing defendant of her right to protest the withholding in writing within 30 days. When defendant failed to file a protest, the Comptroller's office ...

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