Articles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

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Employers must cover certain contraceptives as part of their health plans unless the employer submits a form to their insurer or to the federal government, stating that they object on religious grounds to providing contraceptive coverage. The plaintiff-employers alleged that submitting this notice substantially burdened the exercise of their religion, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993,, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb. In supplemental briefing, the parties acknowledged that contraceptive coverage could be provided to employees, through insurance companies, without such notice. Plaintiffs “need to do nothing more than contract for a plan that does not include coverage for some or all forms of contraception,” and employees could receive cost-free contraceptive coverage from the same insurance company, seamlessly, with the rest of their coverage. Based on these stipulations, the Supreme Court vacated the judgments below and remanded to determine an approach that will accommodate the employers’ religious exercise while ensuring that women covered by their health plans “receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.” The Court did not decide whether the employers’ religious exercise has been substantially burdened, whether the government has a compelling interest, or whether the current regulations are the least restrictive means of serving that interest. View "Zubik v. Burwell" on Justia Law

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Vermont law requires certain entities, including health insurers, to report payments and other information relating to health care claims and services for compilation in a state health care database. Liberty Mutual’s health plan, which provides benefits in all 50 states, is an “employee welfare benefit plan” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA); its third-party administrator, Blue Cross, is subject to the statute. Concerned that the disclosure of confidential information might violate its fiduciary duties, the Plan instructed Blue Cross not to comply and sought a declaration that ERISA preempts application of Vermont’s statute. The Second Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of the state. The Supreme Court affirmed. ERISA expressly preempts “any and all State laws insofar as they may now or hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan,” 29 U.S.C. 1144(a) and, therefore, preempts a state law that has an impermissible “connection with” ERISA plans. ERISA mandates certain oversight systems and other standard procedures; Vermont’s law also governs plan reporting, disclosure, and recordkeeping. Preemption is necessary to prevent multiple jurisdictions from imposing differing, or even parallel, regulations, creating wasteful administrative costs and threatening to subject plans to wide-ranging liability. ERISA’s uniform rule design makes clear that the Secretary of Labor, not the states, decides whether to exempt plans from ERISA reporting requirements or to require ERISA plans to report data such as sought by Vermont. View "Gobeille v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations implementing the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) require that employers’ group health plans furnish preventive care and screenings for women without cost sharing requirements, 42 U.S.C. 300gg–13(a)(4). Nonexempt employers must provide coverage for 20 FDA-approved contraceptive methods, including four that may have the effect of preventing a fertilized egg from developing. Religious employers, such as churches, are exempt from the contraceptive mandate. HHS has effectively exempted religious nonprofit organizations; an insurer must exclude contraceptive coverage from such an employer’s plan and provide participants with separate payments for contraceptive services. Closely held for-profit corporations sought an injunction under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even by a rule of general applicability unless it demonstrates that imposing the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb–1(a), (b). As amended by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), RFRA covers “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” The Third Circuit held that a for-profit corporation could not “engage in religious exercise” under RFRA and that the mandate imposed no requirements on corporate owners in their personal capacity. The Tenth Circuit held that the businesses are “persons” under RFRA; that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdened their religious exercise; and that HHS had not demonstrated that the mandate was the “least restrictive means” of furthering a compelling governmental interest. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the businesses, holding that RFRA applies to regulations that govern the activities of closely held for-profit corporations. The Court declined to “leave merchants with a difficult choice” of giving up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgoing the benefits of operating as corporations. Nothing in RFRA suggests intent to depart from the Dictionary Act definition of “person,” which includes corporations, 1 U.S.C.1; no definition of “person” includes natural persons and nonprofit corporations, but excludes for-profit corporations. “Any suggestion that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion because their purpose is simply to make money flies in the face of modern corporate law.” The Court rejected arguments based on the difficulty of ascertaining the “beliefs” of large, publicly traded corporations and that the mandate itself requires only insurance coverage. If the plaintiff companies refuse to provide contraceptive coverage, they face severe economic consequences; the government failed to show that the contraceptive mandate is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to the four challenged contraceptive methods. The government could assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives or could extend the accommodation already established for religious nonprofit organizations. The Court noted that its decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate, not all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions. View "Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc." on Justia Law

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Massachusetts amended its Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act to make it a crime to knowingly stand on a “public way or sidewalk” within 35 feet of an entrance or driveway to any “reproductive health care facility,” defined as “a place, other than within or upon the grounds of a hospital, where abortions are offered or performed.” Mass. Gen. Laws, 266, 120E½. Exemptions cover “employees or agents of such facility acting within the scope of their employment.” Another provision proscribes knowing obstruction of access to an abortion clinic. Abortion opponents who engage in “sidewalk counseling” sought an injunction, claiming that the amendment displaced them from their previous positions and hampered their counseling efforts; attempts to communicate with patients are also thwarted by clinic escorts, who accompany patients to clinic entrances. The district court denied the challenges. The First Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, first noting the involvement of a traditional public forum. The Court employed “time, place, and manner” analysis, stating that the Act is neither content nor viewpoint based and need not be analyzed under strict scrutiny. Although it establishes buffer zones only at abortion clinics, violations depend not “on what they say,” but on where they say it. The Act is justified without reference to the content of speech; its purposes include protecting public safety, patient access to health care, and unobstructed use of public sidewalks and streets. There was a record of crowding, obstruction, and even violence outside Massachusetts abortion clinics but not at other facilities. The exemption for employees and agents acting within the scope of their employment was not an attempt to favor one viewpoint. Even if some escorts have expressed views on abortion inside the zones, there was no evidence that such speech was authorized by any clinic. The Act, however, burdens substantially more speech than necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests. It deprives objectors of their primary methods of communicating with patients: close, personal conversations and distribution of literature. While the Act allows “protest” outside buffer zones, these objectors are not protestors; they seek to engage in personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about alternatives. Another section of the Act already prohibits deliberate obstruction of clinic entrances. Massachusetts could also enact legislation similar to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, 18 U.S.C. 248(a), which imposes sanctions for obstructing, intimidating, or interfering with persons obtaining or providing reproductive health services. Obstruction of driveways can be addressed by traffic ordinances. Crowding was a problem only at the Boston clinic, and only on Saturday mornings; the police are capable of ordering people to temporarily disperse and of singling out lawbreakers. View "McCullen v. Coakley" on Justia Law

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The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 established a no-fault compensation system to stabilize the vaccine market and expedite compensation to injured parties. Under the Act, a proceeding for compensation is “initiated” by service upon the Secretary of Health and Human Services and “the filing of a petition containing” specified documentation with the clerk of the Court of Federal Claims, who forwards the petition for assignment to a special master. 42 U. S. C. 300aa–11(a)(1). An attorney may not charge a fee for services in connection with such a petition, but a court may award attorney’s fees and costs incurred by a claimant in any proceeding on an unsuccessful petition, if that petition was brought in good faith. In 1997, shortly after receiving her third Hepatitis-B vaccine, Cloer began to experience symptoms that led to a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis in 2003. In 2004, she learned of a link between MS and the Hepatitis-B vaccine, and in 2005, she filed a NCVIA claim. The special master concluded that Cloer’s claim was untimely because the Act’s 36-month limitations period began to run when she had her first MS symptoms in 1997.The Federal Circuit agreed. Cloer then sought attorney’s fees and costs. The Federal Circuit ruled in Cloer’s favor. The Supreme Court affirmed. Nothing in the attorney’s fees provision suggests that the reason for the subsequent dismissal of a petition, such as untimeliness, nullifies the initial filing. An NCVIA petition delivered to the court clerk, forwarded for processing, and adjudicated before a special master is a “petition filed under section 300aa–11.” The government’s contrary position is inconsistent with the fees provision’s purpose, which was to avoid limiting petitioners’ ability to obtain qualified assistance by making awards available for “non-prevailing, good-faith claims.” View "Sebelius v. Cloer" on Justia Law

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The Medicaid statute’s anti-lien provision, 42 U. S. C. 1396p(a)(1), pre-empts state efforts to take any portion of a tort judgment or settlement not “designated as payments for medical care.” A North Carolina statute requires that up to one-third of damages recovered by a beneficiary for a tortious injury be paid to the state to reimburse it for payments made for medical treatment on account of the injury. E. M. A. suffered serious birth injuries that require her to receive 12 to 18 hours of skilled nursing care per day and that will prevent her from working or living independently. North Carolina’s Medicaid program pays part of the cost of her ongoing care. E. M. A. and her parents filed a medical malpractice suit against the physician who delivered her and the hospital where she was born and settled for $2.8 million, due to insurance policy limits. The settlement did not allocate money among medical and nonmedical claims. The state court placed one-third of the recovery into escrow pending a judicial determination of the amount owed by E. M. A. to the state. While that litigation was pending, the North Carolina Supreme Court held in another case that the irrebuttable statutory one-third presumption was a reasonable method for determining the amount due the state for medical expenses. The federal district court, in E.M.A.’s case, agreed. The Fourth Circuit vacated. The Supreme Court affirmed. The federal anti-lien provision pre-empts North Carolina’s irrebuttable statutory presumption that one-third of a tort recovery is attributable to medical expenses. North Carolina’s irrebuttable, one-size-fits-all statutory presumption is incompatible with the Medicaid Act’s clear mandate View "Wos v. E. M. A." on Justia Law

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The Federal Tort Claims Act waives sovereign immunity from tort suits, 28 U. S. C. 1346(b)(1), except for certain intentional torts, including battery; it originally afforded tort victims a remedy against the government, but did not preclude suit against the alleged tort-feasor. Agency-specific statutes postdating the FTCA immunized certain federal employees from personal liability for torts committed in the course of official duties. The Gonzalez Act makes the FTCA remedy against the U.S. preclusive of suit against armed forces medical personnel, 10 U. S. C. 1089(a), and provides that, “[f]or purposes of this section,” the FTCA intentional tort exception “shall not apply to any cause of action arising out of a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the performance of medical ... functions.” Congress subsequently enacted the Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort Compensation Act, which makes the FTCA remedy against the government exclusive for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment, 28 U. S. C. 2679(b)(1); federal employees are shielded without regard to agency or line of work. Levin, injured as a result of surgery performed at a U. S. Naval Hospital, sued the government and the surgeon, asserting battery, based on his alleged withdrawal of consent shortly before the surgery. Finding that the surgeon had acted within the scope of his employment, the district court released him and dismissed the battery claim. Affirming, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the Gonzalez Act served only to buttress the personal immunity granted military medical personnel and did not negate the FTCA intentional tort exception. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. The Gonzalez Act section 1089(e) abrogates the FTCA intentional tort exception, allowing Levin’s suit against the U.S. alleging medical battery by a Navy doctor acting within the scope of employment. The operative clause states, “in no uncertain terms,” that the FTCA intentional tort exception “shall not apply,” and confines the abrogation to medical personnel employed by listed agencies. View "Levin v. United States" on Justia Law

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Under Georgia’s Hospital Authorities Law, Ga. Code 31-7-75, political subdivisions may create special-purpose hospital authorities to exercise public and essential governmental functions, including acquiring public health facilities. The Albany-Dougherty County Authority owns Memorial, one of two hospitals in the county, and formed private nonprofit corporations (PPHS AND PPMH)to manage it. After the Authority decided to purchase the county’s other hospital and lease it to a PPHS subsidiary, the Federal Trade Commission issued an administrative complaint alleging that the transaction would violate the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Clayton Act. The FTC and Georgia sought an injunction. The district court dismissed, citing the state-action doctrine. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that the Authority, as a local governmental entity, was entitled to immunity because the challenged anti-competitive conduct was a foreseeable result of the Law. The Supreme Court reversed. Georgia has not clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed a policy allowing hospital authorities to make acquisitions that substantially lessen competition, so state-action immunity does not apply. State-action immunity is disfavored and applies only when it is clear that the challenged conduct is undertaken pursuant to the state’s own regulatory scheme. There is no evidence Georgia affirmatively contemplated that hospital authorities would displace competition by consolidating hospital ownership. The Authority’s powers, including acquisition and leasing powers, simply mirror general powers routinely conferred by states on private corporations; a reasonable legislature’s ability to anticipate the possibility of anti-competitive use of those powers falls short of clearly articulating an affirmative state policy to displace competition. View "Fed. Trade Comm'n v. Phoebe Putney Health Sys., Inc." on Justia Law

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Reimbursement providers for inpatient services rendered to Medicare beneficiaries is adjusted upward for hospitals that serve disproportionate numbers of patients who are eligible for Supplemental Security Income. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services annually submit the SSI fraction for eligible hospitals to a “fiscal intermediary,” a Health and Human Services contractor, which computes the reimbursement amount and sends the hospitals notice. A provider may appeal to the Provider Reimbursement Review Board within 180 days, 42 U. S. C. 1395oo(a)(3). The PRRB may extend the period, for good cause, up to three years, 42 CFR 405.1841(b). A hospital timely appealed its SSI fraction calculations for 1993 through 1996. The PRRB found that errors in CMS’s methodology resulted in a systematic under-calculation. When the decision was made public, hospitals challenged their adjustments for 1987 through 1994. The PRRB held that it lacked jurisdiction, reasoning that it had no equitable powers save those granted by legislation or regulation. The district court dismissed the claims. The D. C. Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court reversed. While the 180-day limitation is not “jurisdictional” and does not preclude regulatory extension, the regulation is a permissible interpretation of 1395oo(a)(3). Applying deferential review, the Court noted the Secretary’s practical experience in superintending the huge program and the PRRB. Rejecting an argument for equitable tolling, the Court noted that for nearly 40 years the Secretary has prohibited extensions, except as provided by regulation, and Congress not amended the 180-day provision or the rule-making authority. The statutory scheme, which applies to sophisticated institutional providers, is not designed to be “unusually protective” of claimants. Giving intermediaries more time to discover over-payments than providers have to discover underpayments may be justified by the “administrative realities” of the system: a few dozen intermediaries issue tens of thousands of NPRs, while each provider can concentrate on its own NPR. View "Sebelius v. Auburn Reg'l Med. Ctr." on Justia Law

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In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has upheld the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. While only four Justices found its requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance (26 U.S.C. 5000A) constitutional under the Commerce Clause, Chief Justice Roberts found it constitutional by reasonably characterizing it as a tax. Chief Justice Roberts wrote: “it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness." The penalty is to be paid to the IRS, along with the individual’s income taxes. In a limited ruling, the Court held that the Act’s “Medicaid expansion” is unconstitutional in threatening states with loss of existing Medicaid funding if they decline to comply, but that the penalty provision is severable (which means that failure of that provision does not cause the entire Act to fail). The Act requires that state programs provide Medicaid coverage by 2014 to adults with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal pov­erty level, (many states now cover adults with children only if their income is considerably lower, and do not cover childless adults at all) and increases federal funding to cover states’ costs, 42 U.S.C. 1396d(y)(1). The decision leaves intact less controversial provisions, protecting individuals with preexisting conditions, allowing children to be covered by parents’ insurance until age 26, and prohibiting higher costs for insuring women. View "Nat'l Fed'n of Indep. Bus. v. Sebelius" on Justia Law