Civil and Human Rights

RELEASE: Justices Express Skepticism That Rights Created by the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act Cannot Be Enforced in a Section 1983 Suit

WASHINGTON, DC – Following oral argument at the Supreme Court this morning in Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski, a case in which the Supreme Court is considering whether Spending Clause statutes can give rise to private rights enforceable under Section 1983, Constitutional Accountability Center Appellate Counsel Miriam Becker-Cohen issued the following reaction

In today’s argument, members of the Court expressed deep skepticism of the argument that Spending Clause statutes, by their nature, can never give rise to enforceable rights under Section 1983.

In the face of this skepticism, counsel for Health and Hospital Corporation argued that common law principles of contract law incorporated into Section 1983 prevent people like Mr. Talevski—who was forcibly medicated and transferred out of a state-run nursing facility against his will—from vindicating their rights in federal court. Justice Jackson swiftly rejected that notion, emphasizing that, as we explained in our brief, Section 1983 was enacted to abrogate state common law that prevented certain people from vindicating their rights in court. To interpret Section 1983’s express grant of a right to go to court as incorporating common law principles precluding that right would “just be us rewriting the statute.”

Also echoing our brief, several justices emphasized the lack of ambiguity in this case—both in the language of Section 1983 itself and in the rights-creating language of the particular Spending Clause statute at issue here, the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act, or FNHRA. 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. As Justice Jackson put it, there is “no evidence that Congress meant ‘not laws enacted pursuant to the Spending Clause.’” And as Justice Kavanaugh pointed out, FNHRA “says ‘rights’ over and over again.”

In short, FNHRA clearly bestows federal rights on nursing home patients to be free from forms of mistreatment and abuse outlawed by Congress, and Section 1983 plainly allows nursing home patients to seek redress in federal court when those rights are violated.



Case page in Health and Hospital v. Talevski:


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