Thursday, June 5, 2014
Does a resident have a private right of action for violation of key provisions of the federal Nursing Home Reform Act?
For example, federal Medicare/Medicaid Law specifies residents have certain "Transfer and Discharge Rights." A certified nursing facility must permit each resident to "remain in the facility" and must "not transfer or discharge the resident" except for certain specified reasons, usually requiring 30 days advance notice. But what happens if a facility ignores the limitations on acceptable grounds for transfer or discharge, including the 30 day notice requirement?
In its decision on May 12, 2014 in Schwerdtfeger v. Alden Long Grove Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, the federal district court in the Northern District of Illinois ruled that a discharge improper under federal law does not trigger a private statutory remedy. As described in the clearly written decision, an abrupt transfer of the resident from the nursing home into a hospital followed the resident's "verbal dispute with a nurse" and another resident. While federal law permits transfers where there someone's safety or health is endangered, it does not appear from the decision that the nursing home claimed the verbal dispute created such a danger.
Nonetheless, the court dismissed the resident's federal claim, concluding that the statutory language regarding discharge and transfer rights in Medicare and Medicaid law "does not manifest a 'clear and unambiguous' Congressional intention to create private rights in favor of individual nursing facility residents.... The NHRA [Nursing Home Reform Act] provides an administrative process in the state courts rather than a private remedy in federal court."
In so ruling, the federal district court declined to follow the analysis of the Third Circuit in Grammer v. John J. Kane Regional Centers-Glen Hazel, 570 3d 520 (3d Cir. 2008), which as a "matter of first impression" ruled that the NHRA was sufficiently "rights creating" that it could trigger a cause of action regarding quality of care under Section 1983.
My question, reflecting my teaching interests no doubt, is whether the nursing home's discharge was a breach of contract? Most nursing home contracts I've reviewed either directly or indirectly "adopt" the protections of the NHRA as specific rights of their residents. (Indeed, I would be leery of any nursing home that did not do that.) So, even if not a violation of federal law, wouldn't such a discharge breach the contract? I suspect there is probably a court decision or law review article on this topic -- perhaps our readers have a citation?
Of course, in seeking a right to sue directly under the NHRA, the resident was probably also seeking a right to claim attorneys' fees under the civil rights law; breach of contract claims, even if successful, may not make a claimant "whole" because of the likelihood of small consequential damages and no contractual right to seek attorneys' fees. It is not clear from the Schwerdtfeger decision whether a breach of contract claim was alleged, although the federal court did "decline" to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff's "state law claims."