Nursing Home Residents May Bring Section 1983 Claims

The Supreme Court of the United States has spoken on nursing home resident rights. In a landmark decision, it has affirmed the right of nursing-home residents to sue for violations of their dignity and freedom under federal law. The case was brought by Ivanka Talevski, whose father Gorgi suffered from dementia and was subjected to chemical restraints and forced transfers by his nursing home, Valparaiso Care and Rehabilitation, which was owned by the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County and managed by American Senior Communities. Talevski sued all three entities. She claimed they had breached the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act (FNHRA), which was passed in 1987 and signed into law by President Reagan to protect residents from unnecessary restraints and requires advance notice of discharge. She brought claims under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code (“Section 1983”), which is a statute that allows anyone to sue for deprivation of federal rights and reads in relevant part:

[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

The nursing home argued that Talevski could not maintain Section 1983 claims because the FNHRA was enacted under Congress’s spending power and did not create individual rights.

The Court rejected the nursing home’s argument and upheld Talevski’s right to sue under Section 1983. Writing for the majority and delivering her first majority opinion since joining the Court, Justice Kentaji Brown Jackson traced the history and purpose of Section 1983, which was enacted in 1871 to combat state-sanctioned violence and lawlessness against newly freed slaves and their supporters after the Civil War. She emphasized that Section 1983’s plain language covers any rights secured by federal laws, without any exception for spending power legislation. She also noted that a claim brought pursuant to Section 1983 is a tort claim, not a contract claim, and that the common-law principles governing third-party beneficiaries were not relevant or well-settled at the time of Section 1983’s enactment.

Justice Jackson then applied the test established in Gonzaga University v. Doe to determine whether the FNHRA provisions at issue unambiguously conferred individual rights. She found that they did, based on 1) their clear rights-creating language, 2) their focus on the benefited class of residents, and 3) their location in a section titled “Requirements relating to residents’ rights.” She contrasted the FNHRA provisions with the statutory provisions that failed Gonzaga’s test, which lacked such language and had an aggregate focus on public funds. She concluded that the FNHRA rights were presumptively enforceable under Section 1983, unless Congress had expressly or implicitly foreclosed such enforcement.

Justice Jackson then examined the FNHRA’s enforcement scheme and found no evidence of congressional intent to preclude Section 1983 enforcement. She acknowledged that the FNHRA anticipated cooperative federalism between federal and state actors to ensure compliance with its standards, but she did not see any incompatibility between that scheme and individual enforcement under Section 1983. She pointed out that Congress had not provided any private remedy for residents or any express prohibition of Section 1983 nursing home lawsuits in the FNHRA. She also observed that allowing Section 1983 suits would advance the FNHRA’s goals of protecting residents’ health, safety, welfare, and rights.

Justice Jackson affirmed the judgment of the Seventh Circuit, which had reversed the District Court’s dismissal of Talevski’s complaint. She held that Talevski could proceed with her Section 1983 action against the nursing home for violating her father’s rights under the FNHRA. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented from the 7-2 majority decision.

The Talevski decision is a victory for Indiana nursing-home residents and nursing home residents across the nation, who, under appropriate circumstances, can now rely on Section 1983 to vindicate their federal rights against abusive or negligent facilities. It is also a reaffirmation of Section 1983’s broad scope and historic role as a safeguard of individual liberty against state infringement. Finally, the decision is a reminder that laws mean what they say, and that Congress has the power to create rights that courts must respect and enforce. You can read the full decision here.

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