In its Opinion & Order entered on September 17, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin (“the Court”) concluded that the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1396r (“FNHRA”), does not provide a basis for a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim (a private cause of action).
The Alleged Underlying Facts
The plaintiff is the Special Administrator of the estate of a nursing home resident who died as a result of alleged nursing home negligence. The plaintiff alleged that the staff at the defendant nursing home knew that the resident: (1) suffered from vascular dementia; (2) was an elopement risk; and, as a result, (3) required increased supervision.
On February 16, 2014, a certified nursing assistant observed the resident walking toward the nursing home’s exit but failed to ensure that the resident did not exit the facility. Two other certified nursing assistants allegedly ignored the exit door’s audible alarm as the resident left. The resident walked across a roadway, tripped on a curb, fell, and sustained serious injuries. The resident died approximately four days later. Several days after the resident’s death, the Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services investigated the elopement incident and cited defendant Lakeview Health Center with an “Immediate Jeopardy” violation.
The plaintiff’s nursing home lawsuit alleged deprivation of civil rights, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against certain named defendants; common law negligence against two of the certified nursing assistants, for which other defendants would be vicariously responsible; professional negligence against certain defendants; and, a claim for punitive damages. Only the Section 1983 claim was a federal claim; the remaining claims were state law based claims.
The Plaintiff’s FNHRA Claims
The Court stated that three factors are considered when determining whether a federal statute creates and confers a federal right: (1) Congress must have intended that the provision in question benefit the plaintiff (federal statutes must unambiguously create and confer federal rights to support a cause of action under Section 1983); (2) the asserted right must not be so vague and amorphous that its enforcement would strain judicial competence; and, (3) the provision giving rise to the asserted right must be couched in mandatory, rather than precatory, terms.
The Court concluded that the FNHRA provisions at issue in the present case are mandatory, thus satisfying the third factor. The remaining issue was whether the FNHRA provisions satisfied the other two factors.
The Court stated that although it appears that Congress did intend the FNHRA to benefit nursing home residents, it is not enough that the plaintiff falls within the statute’s general zone of benefit: Congress drafted the FNHRA in terms of what nursing facilities must do to receive government funding and, generally speaking, statutes that focus on the person regulated rather than the individuals protected create no implication of an intent to confer rights on a particular class of persons. The Court held that because the portions of the FNHRA at issue in this case focus on facility regulations and do not unambiguously demonstrate that Congress intended the FNHRA to confer rights on the plaintiff, consideration of the first factor suggests that the FNHRA does not confer federal rights.
With regard to the second factor, the Court stated that the plaintiff was attempting to enforce vague, amorphous, quality-of-life interests, and therefore the second factor weighs in favor of the defendants (the plaintiff’s Amended Complaint does not identify any specific statutory entitlements within the FNHRA but rather only generally asserts that defendants “had inadequate policies and plans of care to properly supervise and provide care for its residents[.]”).
The Court therefore granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.
Fiers, et al. v. La Crosse County d/b/a Lakeview Health Center, et al., Case No. 15-cv-88-jdp.
If you or a loved one suffered injuries (or worse) during a nursing home stay in the United States due to nursing home neglect, nursing home negligence, nursing home abuse, or nursing home elopement, you should promptly contact a local nursing home claim lawyer in your U.S. state who may investigate your possible nursing home claim for you and file a nursing home claim on your behalf, if appropriate.
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