Justia Health Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
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The case involves a group of plaintiffs, including the Health Freedom Defense Fund, Inc. and California Educators for Medical Freedom, who challenged the COVID-19 vaccination policy of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The policy, which was in effect for over two years, required employees to get the COVID-19 vaccination or lose their jobs. The plaintiffs argued that the policy interfered with their fundamental right to refuse medical treatment.The case was initially dismissed by the United States District Court for the Central District of California, which applied a rational basis review under Jacobson v. Massachusetts, concluding that the policy served a legitimate government purpose. The court held that even if the vaccine did not prevent transmission or contraction of COVID-19, it furthered the purpose of protecting LAUSD students and employees from COVID-19.The plaintiffs appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. During the appeal, LAUSD rescinded its vaccination policy. LAUSD then asked the court to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the case was now moot. The plaintiffs objected, arguing that LAUSD withdrew the policy because they feared an adverse ruling.The Ninth Circuit held that the case was not moot, applying the voluntary cessation exception to mootness. The court found that LAUSD's pattern of withdrawing and then reinstating its vaccination policies, particularly in response to litigation risk, was enough to keep the case alive.On the merits, the Ninth Circuit held that the district court misapplied the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. The court found that Jacobson did not apply because the plaintiffs had plausibly alleged that the COVID-19 vaccine does not effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19. The court vacated the district court’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings under the correct legal standard. View "HEALTH FREEDOM DEFENSE FUND, INC. V. ALBERTO CARVALHO" on Justia Law

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A class of individuals and businesses in Northern California, who paid health insurance premiums to certain health plans, sued Sutter Health, a healthcare system operator in the region. They alleged that Sutter abused its market power to charge supracompetitive rates to these health plans, which were then passed on to the class in the form of higher premiums. The case went to trial on claims under California’s Cartwright Act for tying and unreasonable course of conduct. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Sutter.The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the district court erred by failing to instruct the jury to consider Sutter’s anticompetitive purpose and by excluding evidence of Sutter’s conduct before 2006. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs. It held that the district court contravened California law by removing “purpose” from the jury instructions, and that the legal error was not harmless. The court also held that the district court abused its discretion under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 in excluding as minimally relevant all evidence of Sutter’s conduct before 2006. The court concluded that these errors were prejudicial and reversed the district court’s judgment, remanding the case for a new trial. View "SIDIBE V. SUTTER HEALTH" on Justia Law

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The case involves Bristol SL Holdings, Inc., the successor-in-interest to Sure Haven, Inc., a defunct drug rehabilitation and mental health treatment center, and Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company and Cigna Behavioral Health, Inc. Bristol alleged that Sure Haven's calls to Cigna verifying out-of-network coverage and seeking authorization to provide health services created independent contractual obligations. Cigna, however, denied payment based on fee-forgiving, a practice prohibited by the health plans. Bristol brought state law claims for breach of contract and promissory estoppel against Cigna.The district court initially dismissed Bristol’s claims, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal, holding that Bristol had derivative standing to sue for unpaid benefits as Sure Haven’s successor-in-interest. On remand, the district court granted Cigna’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) preempted Bristol’s state law claims.On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision. The court held that Bristol’s state law claims were preempted by ERISA because they had both a “reference to” and an “impermissible connection with” the ERISA plans that Cigna administered. The court reasoned that Bristol’s claims were not independent of an ERISA plan because they concerned the denial of reimbursement to patients who were covered under such plans. The court also held that allowing liability on Bristol’s state law claims would interfere with nationally uniform plan administration, a central matter of plan administration. View "Bristol SL Holdings, Inc. v. Cigna Health and Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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The case involves Lorain Ann Stiffler, who applied for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, claiming disability due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, a mood disorder, right knee problems, and a processing disorder. Her application was initially denied and denied again upon reconsideration. Dr. Khosh-Chashm, who diagnosed Stiffler with major depressive disorder, concluded that she had extreme mental functioning limitations and lacked the cognitive and communicative skills required for gainful employment. However, state agency medical consultants Dr. Goldberg and Dr. Bilik disagreed, concluding that Stiffler was not disabled but had moderate limitations on her ability to carry out detailed instructions, maintain concentration, work with others, make simple work-related decisions, and complete a normal workday and workweek.The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) affirmed the denial of Stiffler's application for disability benefits. The ALJ rejected Dr. Khosh-Chashm's opinion, finding it unsupported by and inconsistent with the medical evidence and Stiffler's significant daily activities. The ALJ also found no conflict between the testimony of the vocational expert and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), concluding that Stiffler could work as a marking clerk, mail clerk, or laundry worker.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment, which had upheld the ALJ's decision. The court found substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's evaluation of Dr. Khosh-Chashm's medical opinion and concluded that there was no conflict between Stiffler's limitation to "an environment with few workplace changes" and the DOT's Reasoning Level 2. View "STIFFLER V. O'MALLEY" on Justia Law

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The case involves James Fejes, a pilot who held a certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under 49 U.S.C. § 44703. Fejes used his aircraft to transport and distribute marijuana to retail stores within Alaska, an activity that is legal under state law but illegal under federal law. After an investigation, the FAA revoked Fejes's pilot certificate under 49 U.S.C. § 44710(b)(2), which mandates revocation when a pilot knowingly uses an aircraft for an activity punishable by more than a year's imprisonment under a federal or state controlled substance law.Fejes appealed the FAA's decision to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who affirmed the revocation. He then appealed the ALJ's decision to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which also affirmed the ALJ. Throughout the agency proceedings, Fejes admitted that he piloted an aircraft to distribute marijuana within Alaska, but argued that his conduct fell outside of § 44710(b)(2)'s reach.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied Fejes's petition for review of the NTSB's order affirming the FAA's revocation of his pilot certificate. The court rejected Fejes's argument that the FAA lacked jurisdiction to revoke his pilot certificate because Congress cannot authorize an administrative agency to regulate purely intrastate commerce like marijuana delivery within Alaska. The court held that airspace is a channel of commerce squarely within congressional authority, and therefore, Congress can regulate Fejes's conduct. The court also rejected Fejes's argument that his conduct was exempt under FAA regulation 14 C.F.R. § 91.19, and that the FAA misinterpreted § 44710(b)(2). The court concluded that the FAA's revocation of Fejes's pilot certificate was not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law. View "FEJES V. FAA" on Justia Law

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The plaintiff, Ryan S., filed a class action lawsuit against UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and its subsidiaries (collectively, “UnitedHealthcare”) under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). He alleged that UnitedHealthcare applies a more stringent review process to benefits claims for outpatient, out-of-network mental health and substance use disorder (“MH/SUD”) treatment than to otherwise comparable medical/surgical treatment. Ryan S. asserted that by doing so, UnitedHealthcare violated the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (“Parity Act”), breached its fiduciary duty, and violated the terms of his plan.The district court granted UnitedHealthcare’s motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) based primarily on its conclusions that Ryan S. failed to allege that his claims had been “categorically” denied and insufficiently identified analogous medical/surgical claims that he had personally submitted and UnitedHealthcare had processed more favorably.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part the district court’s judgment. The panel concluded that Ryan S. adequately stated a claim for a violation of the Parity Act. The panel explained that an ERISA plan can violate the Parity Act in different ways, including by applying, as Ryan S. alleged here, a more stringent internal process to MH/SUD claims than to medical/surgical claims. The panel also concluded that Ryan S. alleged a breach of fiduciary duty. However, as Ryan S. failed to identify any specific plan terms that the alleged practices would violate, the panel affirmed the dismissal of his claims based on a violation of the terms of his plan. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Ryan S. v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc." on Justia Law

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The case involves Adree Edmo, a transgender woman incarcerated in Idaho, who sued the State of Idaho, private prison company Corizon, and individual prison officials for failing to provide her with adequate medical care, including gender-confirmation surgery. Edmo alleged violations of the Eighth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the Affordable Care Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and negligence under Idaho law. The district court granted an injunction on Edmo’s Eighth Amendment claim and ordered the defendants to provide her with adequate medical care, including gender-confirmation surgery. The court denied preliminary injunctive relief on Edmo’s Fourteenth Amendment and ACA claims because the record had not been sufficiently developed.The district court's decision was appealed, and the injunction was stayed. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision except as it applied to five defendants in their individual capacities. After the Supreme Court denied a writ of certiorari, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations that led to Edmo voluntarily dismissing the remainder of her claims. The district court awarded Edmo $2,586,048.80 for attorneys’ fees incurred up until the injunction became permanent and all appeals were resolved.The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in part, affirmed in part, and vacated in part the district court’s award of attorneys’ fees to Edmo. The court held that Edmo was entitled to fees incurred litigating her successful Eighth Amendment claim. However, the court found that the district court erred in calculating the lodestar amount to include fees incurred litigating unsuccessful claims advanced in the complaint, even if those claims were premised on the same facts that supported Edmo’s Eighth Amendment claim. The court also held that the district court did not err by applying an enhancement to the lodestar amount given that Edmo’s counsel operated under extraordinary time pressure and that the customary fee for counsel’s services is well above the PLRA cap. The case was remanded for recalculation of the lodestar amount to include only fees incurred litigating Edmo’s successful claim against the defendants who remained in the case. View "Edmo v. Corizon, Inc." on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in a case involving a claimant who was denied Social Security benefits. The claimant, who had undergone surgery to treat a brain condition known as Arnold-Chiari malformation, testified to experiencing severe and frequent headaches. However, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) rejected his testimony regarding the severity of his headaches, asserting that his headache symptoms were inconsistent with the medical evidence and his daily activities.The court of appeals found that the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the claimant's symptom testimony regarding his headaches. It noted that the ALJ did not specify which of the claimant's symptoms were inconsistent with the record evidence. The court also rejected the argument that a claimant must provide independent medical evidence to establish the severity of headaches.Furthermore, the court found that the claimant's daily activities were not inconsistent with his testimony about the severity and frequency of his headaches. The district court's affirmation of the ALJ's decision based on the claimant's conservative treatment was also found erroneous since the ALJ did not consider this factor. Consequently, the court reversed the judgment of the district court, remanding it back to the ALJ to reconsider the credibility of the claimant's headache symptom testimony. View "Ferguson v. O'Malley" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a case involving physicians who challenged California's Assembly Bill 2098 (AB 2098), which declared it unprofessional conduct for a doctor to provide COVID-19-related disinformation or misinformation to patients, ruled that the case is moot following the repeal of AB 2098. The court found no reasonable expectation that California would reenact AB 2098 or similar legislation. Additionally, evidence from the Executive Director of the Medical Board of California indicated that the board's employees and agents had been instructed not to enforce AB 2098, and that the board would have no legal authority to enforce the law once it was no longer in effect. Therefore, the court vacated the lower court's judgement and instructed it to dismiss the case due to mootness. View "MCDONALD V. LAWSON" on Justia Law

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A group of current and former inmates, or their representatives, filed a class action lawsuit against Kate Brown, the Governor of Oregon, and Patrick Allen, the Director of the Oregon Health Authority, claiming that the state's COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, which prioritized corrections officers over inmates, violated their Eighth Amendment rights. The defendants moved to dismiss the claim, asserting immunity under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act. The district court denied the motion, and the defendants appealed.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's decision, finding that the defendants were immune from liability for the vaccine prioritization claim under the PREP Act. The court held that the statutory requirements for PREP Act immunity were met because the "administration" of a covered countermeasure includes prioritization of that countermeasure when its supply is limited. The court further concluded that the PREP Act's provisions extend immunity to persons who make policy-level decisions regarding the administration or use of covered countermeasures. The court also held that the PREP Act provides immunity from suit and liability for constitutional claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, even if those claims are federal constitutional claims. View "MANEY V. BROWN" on Justia Law