Civil and Human Rights

Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski

In Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski, the Supreme Court considered whether Spending Clause statutes can give rise to private rights enforceable under Section 1983.

Case Summary

In 2016, Gorgi Talevski began living in a nursing facility. That facility allegedly chemically restrained him with a high dose of psychotropic medications without justification and against his will, rendering him unable to feed himself or speak English, and then repeatedly transferred him to a facility far from his family—again, against his will—without providing him even the basic decency of his dentures. As a result, Talevski sued the nursing facility under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act of 1987 (FNHRA), a federal law authorized by Congress’s Spending Clause powers, that requires nursing homes that accept Medicare and Medicaid funds to protect the rights of nursing home residents.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana dismissed the lawsuit, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed. Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, Indiana—the state-operated owner of Mr. Talevski’s nursing facility—asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, and it agreed to do so.

On September 23, 2022, CAC, along with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and the ACLU of Indiana, filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Talevski. Our brief made two main points.

First, our brief explained why Health and Hospital’s argument that Spending Clause statutes categorically cannot give rise to a Section 1983 action cannot be reconciled with the text and history of Section 1983. The text of Section 1983 unambiguously provides a right to sue “[e]very person” who, under color of state law or custom, deprives another person of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” of the United States. The plain language of that provision forecloses the argument that only certain laws can give rise to a Section 1983 action. Indeed, Section 1983 contains no modifier that suggests that laws passed pursuant to Congress’s Spending Clause authority do not fit within the statute’s broad “all laws” language. Notably, the Supreme Court has upheld this straightforward interpretation of the statute multiple times. The history of Section 1983 is also at odds with Health and Hospital’s argument. The chief concern of the drafters of Section 1983 was the protection of personal liberty. Given Section 1983’s drafters’ focus on protecting deeply personal liberties like the right to be free from unwarranted intrusions on one’s person and body, it would be especially problematic to exempt from that statute’s enforcement a broad class of laws that in many cases—as here—explicitly create analogous rights.

Second, our brief explained why there is no support for Health and Hospital’s argument that Spending Clause statutes cannot create judicially enforceable private rights. Health and Hospital argues that Spending Clause legislation creates a contract-like relationship between the federal government and the states, so private individuals should be treated as third-party beneficiaries, who were not permitted to sue on contracts at the time Section 1983 was written. Importantly, however, in prior cases in which this Court has invoked the contract law analogy to guide interpretation of Spending Clause statutes, it has exclusively done so in the face of statutory ambiguity—not where, as here, the text of the statute is unambiguous.

In sum, our brief concluded that the text and history of Section 1983 plainly refute Health and Hospital’s argument that deprivations of rights created by the Spending Clause are not actionable via Section 1983. “All laws” means all laws, including those passed under Congress’ Spending Clause power.

On June 8, 2023, the Supreme Court issued its decision, holding 7-2 that Section 1983 may be used “to enforce every right that Congress validly and unambiguously creates,” and that FNHRA itself creates enforceable rights that are not otherwise barred by the statutory scheme. In her opinion for the Court, Justice Jackson echoed our argument that “‘laws’ mean ‘laws,’ no less today than in the 1870s,” when that landmark Reconstruction statute was enacted, and so the plain text of Section 1983 forecloses the argument that certain rights-creating statutes are excepted from Section 1983 scope. Justice Jackson also rejected once and for all the argument that statutes like FNHRA passed pursuant to Congress’s Spending Clause power are incapable of conferring enforceable rights because of the contract-like relationship between the federal government and states under such laws. Those Spending Clause statutes, as Justice Jackson explained, are no less federal laws than any other statutes. Thus, “[h]ewing to §1983’s text and history (not to mention our precedent and constitutional role),” the Court “reaffirm[ed] that ‘laws’ in §1983 means what it says.”

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