Wednesday, December 14, 2011

D. Minn. Applies State-Law Limitation on Medical Malpractice Cases to Federal Rehabilitation Act Claim

On Monday, Chief Judge Michael Davis of the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota issued an opinion dismissing the plaintiff's claims in Phillips v. Fairview Health Services, 2011 WL 6151514 (D. Minn., Dec. 12, 2011).  The plaintiff was admitted to the psychiatric care department of one of the defendant's hospitals during an acute episode.  He alleged that hospital staff were abusive to him, belittled him, and unduly restrained him due to his mental disability.  He sued the hospital under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as under state-law intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and battery theories.

The hospital moved to dismiss for failure to comply with Minn.Stat. ยง 145.682.  As the court described it, that statute provides that "'[i]n an action alleging malpractice, error, mistake, or failure to cure, whether based on contract or tort, against a health care provider which includes a cause of action as to which expert testimony is necessary to establish a prima facie case' the plaintiff must serve the defendant, with the summons and complaint, an affidavit from his attorney stating that the facts have been reviewed by said attorney with an expert, and that it is the expert's opinion that one or more of the defendants deviated from the applicable standard of care, which caused plaintiff injury."  The district court concluded that the statute applied to all of the plaintiff's claims, both the Rehabilitation Act claim and the state-law claims.  Because plaintiff's counsel had not served the defendant with the affidavit the state statute requires, the court dismissed all of the plaintiff's claims with prejudice.

This decision seems to me quite wrong.  One might question whether any of the plaintiff's claims alleged "malpractice, error, mistake, or failure to cure"; this language doesn't easily fit intentional tort claims like the ones the plaintiff brought here.  But certainly as to the federal claim under the Rehabilitation Act, the court had no basis for applying state law to limit it.  That, it seems to me, is a straightforward application of the Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Felder v. Casey.  Felder makes clear that states can't go around establishing their own prerequisites for and defenses against federal-law claims created by Congress.


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