Tag Archives: Section 1983

The Talevski Case

Over the past couple of weeks, several people have contacted me asking that I comment on an Indiana lawsuit that is currently on appeal to the Supreme Court, which will hear it this coming session unless the parties settle and pull it from consideration. The case is Health and Hospital Corporation v. Talevski. 

There is a (well-founded) fear that the current, retrograde Supreme Court majority will use this case to eliminate the use of Section 1983 by Medicaid beneficiaries.

Section 1983 is a 150-year-old provision of federal law that permits citizens to sue when government is violating their rights. If such a suit is successful, a companion provision requires that government pay the lawyer who handled the successful case. (Needless to say, without some prospect of being paid, very few lawyers will be willing to accept such cases–and in the case of Medicaid, plaintiffs by definition lack the resources to make such payments.)

I’ve been reluctant to address the case, because it is very technical and it’s been a long time since I was a practicing lawyer. It’s one thing to pontificate about the Constitution, which I’ve been teaching for the past 20+ years, and quite another to do a “deep dive” into an area of the law with which I am no longer familiar. For that matter, my own background with Section 1983 focused on its use to sue government  when someone who is acting “under color of state law” deprives citizens of their civil rights; I was far less familiar with its use under the Spending Clause, which Talevski threatens.

Because several of the people expressing concern are people I highly respect, I did a bit of research. That research included consulting Indiana’s ACLU, which very kindly provided me with a letter the office had previously issued on the subject. Here is the opening paragraph of that letter:

To Whom It May Concern:

As you are undoubtedly aware, in Health and Hospital Corporation v. Talevski, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to address the issue of whether spending-clause legislation may be enforced through an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  It is, of course, impossible to predict how the Court will resolve this issue, or how narrow or broad its holding might be.  However, our office has a lengthy history of relying on § 1983 to remedy violations of spending-clause legislation that is designed to protect the neediest Hoosiers.  An unfavorable decision in Talevski could serve as an absolute bar to similar litigation in the future.

I try to keep these posts relatively brief, but given the stakes of this litigation and the concerns it raises, I am going to end this post by pasting in the rest of the ACLU’s letter. Before I do so, however, I want to confirm my agreement with the assertion that eliminating use of Section 1983 would effectively eliminate the rights of literally millions of Americans who rely on Medicaid.

A right without a remedy for its violation is not a right at all. And given the current composition of the Supreme Court, the threat that important rights will be “on the chopping block” is not an idle one.

Below is the portion of the letter from ACLU lawyer Gavin Rose describing just how important Section 1983 has been in enforcing the rights of Hoosiers and all American citizens.


In Planned Parenthood of Indiana, Inc. v. Commissioner of Indiana State Dep’t of Health, 699 F.3d 962 (7th Cir. 2012), our office filed a lawsuit challenging a recently enacted Indiana statute prohibiting state agencies from paying state or federal funds to any entity that performs abortions.  Although we raised a constitutional claim, the primary claim—and the claim on which the statute was ultimately invalidated by the Seventh Circuit—was that, by denying Medicaid recipients the ability to receive family-planning services through Planned Parenthood, the statute violated the free-choice-of-provider provision of federal Medicaid law, 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(23).  Federal Medicaid law, like the entirety of the Social Security Act, was enacted pursuant to Congress’s spending-clause authority.

In addition to allowing recipients to select the providers from whom they wish to receive services, federal Medicaid law establishes that participating states must provide certain enumerated services to Medicaid-enrolled individuals and that they may elect to provide additional services.  See 42 U.S.C. § 1396a(a)(10)(A).  However, once a state provides a certain service, whether the provision of that service is required or optional, the state must pay for that service whenever it is “medically necessary” for a Medicaid recipient.  With overwhelming success, our office has routinely relied on § 1983 to bring litigation when Indiana has failed to provide for the receipt of medically necessary services by children, persons with severe disabilities, or other vulnerable Hoosiers:

Ø  In Selner v. Secretary of the Indiana Family & Social Services Administration, No. 1:15-cv-01874-SEB-MPB (S.D. Ind.), we filed a class action lawsuit challenging Indiana’s refusal, in contravention of virtually unanimous medical opinions, to provide Medicaid coverage for the ground-breaking Hepatitis C drugs unless a patient had already experienced substantial liver damage.  The lawsuit resulted in a settlement agreement whereby Indiana agreed to cover the medications without regard to the severity of an individual’s disease.

Ø  In Bontrager v. Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, 697 F.3d 604 (7th Cir. 2012), our office represented a Medicaid recipient in need of significant dental services who challenged Indiana’s $1,000 annual “cap” on such services.  After concluding that this “cap” excluded medically necessary services and therefore violated federal Medicaid law, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the issuance of a preliminary injunction in favor of our client.

Ø  In A.M.T. v. Gargano, 781 F. Supp. 2d 798 (S.D. Ind. 2011), we represented a class of children with severe disabilities (such as cerebral palsy or other muscular disorders) that had been prohibited from receiving physical or occupational therapy because Indiana determined that the therapy would not result in further functional progression, even though the children would experience significant regression in absence of therapy.  The district court entered summary judgment in our client’s favor, enjoining Indiana from enforcing its prohibition on so-called “maintenance therapy.”

Ø  In Chadwell v. Indiana Family & Social Services Administration, No. 11D01-0808-PL-373 (Clay Cnty. Superior Court), we represented a class of severely disabled Medicaid recipients who relied on so-called “attendant care services”—which are utilized to assist persons in performing their activities of daily living—to allow them to live in the community rather than in an institutional setting.  After Indiana restricted persons from receiving more than 40 hours a week in these services, we filed suit.  The court issued first a preliminary injunction and then summary judgment in our clients’ favor.

Ø  In McArty v. Roob, No. 49D04-0606-PL-24259 (Marion Cnty. Superior Court), we represented a class of Medicaid recipients in need of dentures or related repairs in challenging Indiana’s refusal to cover these services for persons who had received similar services within the past six years.  After we filed suit, Indiana entered into a consent decree in which it agreed to provide coverage for medically necessary services without regard to its six-year restriction.

Ø  And in Collins v. Hamilton, 349 F.3d 371 (7th Cir. 2003), we successfully represented a class of mentally ill children in challenging Indiana’s failure to provide Medicaid coverage for long-term residential treatment in certain residential facilities.

On top of all this, in order to ensure that persons in need are not forced to wait indefinitely while states contemplate their eligibility for public benefits, federal law frequently establishes specific time limits that states must meet to process applications or appeals.  In the past, our office has relied on § 1983 to file class-action litigation seeking to enforce federal-law time limits to issue decisions on Medicaid applications (Thornton v. Murphy, No. 1:08-cv-01853-LJM-DML – S.D. Ind.), to resolve unemployment appeals (Gorman v. Commissioner of the Indiana Dep’t of Workforce Development, No. 49D06-1006-PL-26087 – Marion Cnty. Superior Court), to resolve Medicaid appeals (Murray v. Roob, No. 49D12-0505-PL-16671 – Marion County Superior Court), and to resolve Food Stamp appeals (Nickels v. Roob, No. 49D01-0701-PL-4025 – Marion Cnty. Superior Court).  We have also relied on federal Medicaid law to file a lawsuit challenging Indiana’s failure to obtain and evaluate required medical evidence before deciding that an applicant is not disabled and therefore ineligible for benefits (Bailey v. Sullivan, No. 1:94-cv-00089-SEB-JMS – S.D. Ind.).  Each of these cases was resolved through a favorable settlement agreement or consent decree.

Finally, Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, among other things, requires participating states to cover certain costs for children in foster care and to provide payments on behalf of adoptive children with special needs.  In C.H. v. Payne, 683 F. Supp. 2d 865 (S.D. Ind. 2010), our office represented several classes of foster children and adoptive children with special needs, and their parents, in an action to challenge Indiana’s reduction in the payments made on behalf of children to a level insufficient to meet their most basic needs.  A private law firm representing the Indiana Association of Residential Child Care Agencies, Inc. filed a similar lawsuit (which was consolidated with the C.H. case) addressing payments to certain providers.  After hearing evidence, the district court issued a preliminary injunction against the payment reductions on the same day as the hearing and memorialized its conclusions in a written decision less than a week later.

*                       *                       *
The cases that I have identified represent a partial list of actions alleging violations of spending-clause legislation brought by a single law office.  Frequently on behalf of persons in dire need, other attorneys have initiated countless similar cases both in Indiana and across the nation.  As indicated, I cannot predict how the Supreme Court will ultimately resolve Talevski.  However, any holding that spending-clause legislation may not be enforced through § 1983 would undoubtedly jeopardize the ability to bring similar cases in the future.

Unpacking Immunity

The defiance shown by so many police officers to vaccine mandates absolutely astonishes me, as I’ve previously posted. These are, after all, people whose job it is to enforce “mandates” over the “personal choices” of citizens whose disagreement with those mandates is irrelevant.

But then I read a very informative column by Radley Balko in The Washington Post and connected some (admittedly non-intuitive) dots.

The column was about qualified immunity–the judge-made doctrine that continues to exempt police officers from the consequences of unconstitutional behaviors, and essentially allows them to choose which laws they will follow and which they will ignore. I have previously explained that doctrine, and why so many lawyers argue that its effects have been pernicious. Balko goes beyond the widespread criticism of the way qualified immunity currently works; he explains its ugly origins.

I, for one, was unaware of those origins.

Balko begins by reminding us that qualified immunity isn’t in the Constitution or in the U.S. Code. “It is judge-made law. It is judicial activism, by any definition of the term.” The doctrine was first announced in Pierson v. Ray, a case arising out of participation by a group of Episcopal priests–three of whom were Black–in the effort to desegregate public accommodations in the South.

Waiting on a bus just outside of Jackson, Miss., 15 of the priests, three of whom were Black, entered a segregated cafe. Two police officers ordered them to leave. When they refused, the officers arrested them under a vague Mississippi law permitting police to arrest any group of people who threatens a “breach of the peace.” The clergymen were convicted and sentenced to four months in jail. On appeal, their arrests were deemed illegal and their convictions were overturned. They subsequently sued under Section 1983.

Section 1983 is the federal statute allowing citizens to sue the government for damages when agents of that government, acting in their official capacities, violate their rights.

This was the precise sort of constitutional violation that Section 1983 was passed to address. Local state authorities had refused to recognize the 14th Amendment rights of Black priests to be treated equally. And yet they lost.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that by merely participating in the Freedom Rides, the clergymen had knowingly placed themselves in harm’s way, and therefore were ineligible for damages. The court also ruled that though the arrests and law were subsequently determined to be unconstitutional, the police could not have known that at the time, and therefore couldn’t be held liable.

In 1967, the Supreme Court upheld the decision, and in 1982, in the case of Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Court made the doctrine even worse. As I explained in my former post on the subject, the Court in Harlow ignored precedents that had required an examination of the “subjective good faith” of the officer being sued. Instead, the court adopted a new “objective” test. After Harlow, a plaintiff had to show that the defendant’s conduct “violate[d] clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

In other words, since Harlow, courts have required plaintiffs to cite to an already existing judicial decision with substantially similar facts. As a result, as one lawyer recently wrote, “the first person to litigate a specific harm is out of luck” since the “first time around, the right violated won’t be ‘clearly established.’”

As Balko (accurately) characterized the current situation,

Collectively, they’ve created a through-the-looking-glass realm of jurisprudence that not only excuses police violations of constitutional rights, not only grants a police an exception to the axiom that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” but actually incentivizes law enforcement to remain oblivious to the rights of the people they serve.

Which brings me back to the chutzpah of the police who are refusing vaccination.

When you are working in an environment that shelters you from the consequences when you break the rules, an environment that allows you to decide for yourself which laws you will follow and which ones you will ignore, the result is development of an entitlement mentality. When you are insulated–immunized–from the consequences that ordinary citizens face when they ignore laws of general application, why wouldn’t you get cocky? Why wouldn’t you consider yourself immune from the rules that the “little people” must follow?

Qualified immunity explains a lot more than the evisceration of Section 1983.