Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court held residents of nursing homes that receive Medicaid funding can sue in federal court to enforce rights granted to them by the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act (“FNHRA”). This decision significantly expands potential nursing home liability.
In Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski, the family of a nursing home resident suspected the resident was being chemically restrained when his dementia dramatically worsened without any explanation. When an outside neurologist confirmed their suspicion, the family filed a complaint with the State Department of Health. While their complaint was winding its way through the administrative process, the nursing home transferred the resident to a psychiatric hospital without first notifying the resident or the family. Both the chemical restraints and the transfer violated provisions of the FNHRA. The family eventually sued the nursing home in federal court under § 1983, claiming the resident’s civil rights had been violated.
The Supreme Court agreed that the FNHRA “unambiguously” confers rights upon nursing home residents that are enforceable through a federal § 1983 action. Among these are the right to be free from unnecessary chemical restraints and the right not to be transferred unless certain preconditions are met. The FNHRA contains other enumerated rights that were not at issue in Talevski. Based on the Court’s reasoning, each of these is likely also enforceable through a § 1983 action.
The impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling on nursing homes is three-fold. First, it provides an additional mechanism for civil suit under § 1983, which will likely lead to an increase in litigation. Second, it recognizes a federal cause of action that allows a plaintiff to sue a nursing home in federal – rather than state – court and potentially evade damages caps in certain states. Third, it provides the plaintiffs in these cases another potential area of financial recovery since successful claims under § 1983 give the court the ability to award attorney’s fees. Nursing homes that receive Medicaid funding should be aware of this significant expansion of their potential liability.