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Murray, Democratic Leaders File Amicus Brief in Case that Could Curtail the Ability of Individuals to Enforce Their Rights to Federal Programs in Court

The Pending Supreme Court Case Could Also Undermine Congress’s Spending Clause Authority

WASHINGTON – On Friday, U.S Senator Patty Murray, Chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), joined House and Senate leaders in submitting an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Health and Hospital Corp. of Marion County v. Talevski. The Democrats wrote in support of the ability of individuals to use federal courts to enforce the requirements of certain federal programs, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Fair Housing Assistance Program, the Children's Health Insurance Program, Head Start, the Veterans Rehabilitation program, and more.


The case concerns Gorgi Talevski, who had dementia and experienced multiple violations of his rights at a nursing home. Talevski’s wife sued his nursing home and its affiliates for violating his rights as a nursing home resident under the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act (FNHRA). A lower court ruled in Talevski’s favor and on appeal the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit concurred. The Appeals Court ruled that the law was intended to protect the rights of vulnerable nursing home residents like Talevski, and that the rights are enforceable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Section 1983). Section 1983 is a longstanding federal law that allows individuals to sue for violations of their rights under the Constitution or federal laws. The Seventh Circuit’s ruling, however, is now in jeopardy as the Supreme Court prepares to hear the case in November. 


“Were this Court to reverse the Seventh Circuit’s decision and restrict a nursing home residents’ ability to sue for certain violations of FNHRA, this Court would impede Congress’s explicit intention to provide efficient and effective means of redress for nursing home quality-of-care violations, impinge on congressional authority, and imperil the separation of powers between Congress and this Court,” the Congressional Democratic leaders wrote in the amicus brief.


The Democratic leaders wrote that Congress has long passed legislation, pursuant to its Spending Clause powers, which permit private suits brought under Section 1983 to remedy violations of such legislation. They argued that the Court should reject efforts to alter its established, uniform precedent for two primary reasons. First, for decades, Congress has legislated against the backdrop that express rights derived from federal spending statutes may be enforced through Section 1983. Second, disturbing this Court’s Section 1983 doctrine more broadly—by curtailing Congress’s ability to permit private enforcement of Spending Clause legislation and the programs established by that legislation—would have disastrous consequences.


Congress allocates billions of dollars each year in federal funds to assist the states in providing services for the nation’s most vulnerable individuals. The lawmakers wrote that neither federal nor state authorities have sufficient resources to provide complete oversight over the funding provided to state programs. Instead, their attention must be often dedicated to systemic abuses, while preserving the option of aggrieved individuals to seek individual remedies in federal court. 


“Eliminating Congress’s right to establish these private enforcement mechanisms will leave federal-state programs with limited oversight. And individual violators will be effectively immunized from suit,” the lawmakers continued in their amicus brief. “Thus, a reversal of this Court’s uniform Section 1983 doctrine would leave Spending Clause beneficiaries with little recourse and would undermine Congress’s purpose in enacting these statutes.”


The amicus brief was signed by Senator Murray, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA), House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), House Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott (D-GA), House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR), Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Senate Aging Committee Chairman Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA).


Full text of the amicus brief is available here.