May 31, 2022

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (“Federal Appellate Court”) stated in its opinion dated February 2, 2022: “Kylie DiDonato was seriously injured when she fell and hit her head in Tim Panatera’s bathroom. DiDonato later invoked § 1983 and alleged that Panatera—a City of Chicago paramedic—shirked his responsibility to treat her and instead saw her weakened state as an opportunity to sexually assault her. She contended that this inaction by someone acting under “color of state law” violated her rights under the U.S. Constitution. The district court recognized the gravity of Panatera’s alleged misconduct, but rightly concluded that DiDonato failed to plead facts showing that Panatera was acting in his capacity as a City paramedic for purposes of a § 1983 claim. We affirm.”

The Underlying Facts

Kylie DiDonato slipped, fell, and seriously injured her head on a bathtub in Tim Panatera’s home in March 2018. Panatera found DiDonato disoriented and badly bleeding on the bathroom floor. But rather than calling 911, driving DiDonato to the hospital himself, or drawing upon his training as a paramedic to treat her, Panatera allegedly did no more than rinse the blood from DiDonato’s head and wrap it in a towel. From there, DiDonato contends, Panatera moved her to his bed and sexually assaulted her as she drifted in and out of consciousness. When DiDonato regained consciousness the next afternoon, Panatera drove her home and then reported to work. With the help of a friend, DiDonato made her way to an emergency room later that day. The ER team sutured her head wounds and informed her that she had sustained head trauma and a concussion.

42 U.S.C. § 1983

A plaintiff may hold a public official personally liable for misconduct under § 1983 upon satisfying two essential elements. First, the challenged conduct must have been committed by a person acting under color of state law—a requirement coming directly from § 1983’s text. Second, the state actor’s conduct must have deprived the plaintiff of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or federal law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The traditional understanding of what it means for an official to act “under color of state law” encompasses misconduct by officials exercising power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law. It is firmly established that a § 1983 defendant acts under color of state law when he abuses the position given to him by the State. But it is equally well settled that a mere assertion that one is a state officer does not necessarily mean that one acts under color of state law. Whether an individual is acting under color of state law turns largely on the nature of the specific acts the official performed rather than on merely whether he was actively assigned at the moment to the performance of his official duties. Where a plaintiff does not allege that a public official’s actions involved some inappropriate invocation or exercise of state authority, there is no § 1983 claim.

To plead that a defendant acted under color of state law, a § 1983 plaintiff must allege that a defendant’s invocation of state authority in one way or another facilitated or enabled the alleged misconduct. That the defendant is a state employee is not enough.

The Federal Appellate Court stated in the case it was deciding: “But the mere overlap between Panatera’s routine job responsibilities and the conduct DiDonato complained of does not mean that Panatera acted under color of state law when he decided not to take DiDonato to the emergency room or to provide other medical help. What is missing from DiDonato’s complaint is any plausible allegation either that Panatera’s action or inaction was a misuse of the City’s power or that his wrongdoing was made possible because he was “clothed with the authority of state law” … Common decency, not his employment status, demanded Panatera take some steps to stop DiDonato’s bleeding. And it was Panatera’s alleged self-serving opportunism, not an exercise of state authority, that prevented DiDonato from leaving his home and seeking further care … DiDonato’s complaint describes behavior that, while abhorrent, was “wholly unconnected” to Panatera’s employment.”

Source DiDonato v. Panatera, No. 20-1692.

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