Thursday, June 8, 2023
The Supreme Court ruled today that an individual can sue to enforce rights under the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act. The Court declined the defendant's invitation to rewrite the law on individual suits to enforce rights in spending-power legislation, and reaffirmed its long-standing approach to individual suits under such acts.
The ruling is a win for plaintiffs, insofar as it didn't disturb the Court's approach to individual lawsuits to enforce rights in conditioned-spending programs.
The case, Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski, arose out of a nursing-home patient's lawsuit against the home for administering certain restraints and discharging him without meeting certain preconditions, both in violation of the FNHRA. The home argued in response that Talevski couldn't sue (under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983) to enforce provisions of the FNHRA, because Congress enacted the FNHRA under its spending power. (The FNHRA is a conditioned-spending program: Congress imposes conditions under the FNHRA on states when they accept federal funds--in this case, Medicaid funds--and the federal government can enforce those conditions by withholding federal funds. The conditions are different than an ordinary federal regulatory requirement, enacted under one of Congress's regulatory powers (like the Commerce Clause), because states that object to the conditions can opt out by declining federal funds.)
The home argued that individual plaintiffs could never sue under Section 1983 to enforce rights under conditioned-spending programs. The argument went like this: conditioned-spending programs are like contracts between the federal government and a state; an individual protected by anything in a conditioned-spending program is a third-party to the contract; and common law at the time of the adoption of Section 1983 did not allow third parties to sue to enforce contractual provisions.
The Court flatly rejected this argument. The Court said that the common law was ambiguous on this point, that a plaintiff's suit was more like a tort (not a third-party enforcement of a contract), and that Court precedent long recognized that individuals could sue to enforce rights in conditioned-spending programs.
The Court went on to apply that precedent and say that the FNHRA unambiguously conferred individual rights, and that nothing in the statute precluded private enforcement of those rights.
Justice Jackson wrote the majority opinion, joined by all but Justices Thomas and Alito. Justice Gorsuch wrote a concurrence arguing that these cases may raise anti-commandeering problems--an issue for another day. Justice Barrett wrote a concurrence, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, emphasizing that the standard for individual enforcement of rights in spending-power legislation is high.
Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that Congress's spending authority is much narrower than the Court has acknowledged, and that it doesn't include a regulatory power (including power to authorize individual lawsuits to enforce rights in conditioned-spending programs). Justice Alito also dissented, joined by Justice Thomas, arguing that the remedial scheme in the FNHRA forecloses any individual cause of action to enforce the rights in the Act.