High Court Clears U.S. Public Health Employees Of Liability

High Court Clears U.S. Public Health Employees Of Liability

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) bars actions filed under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents (403 U.S. 388, 397) against U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) officers or employees for harms due to constitutional violations that occurred while the officials were acting within the scope of their office or employment, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled May 3, reversing a ruling by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (Esther Hui, et al. v. Yanira Castaneda, as personal representative of the Estate of Francisco Castaneda, et al., No. 08-1529, U.S. Sup.).

"The Court's inquiry begins and ends with [42 U.S. Code Section] 233(a)'s text, which plainly precludes a Bivens action against petitioners by limiting recovery for harms arising from the conduct at issue to an FTCA action against the United States.  The breadth of §233(a)'s words 'exclusive' and 'any' supports this reading, as does the provision's inclusive reference to all civil proceedings arising out of 'the same subject matter,'" Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court. 

Francisco Castaneda was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the San Diego Correctional Facility in March 2006.  At that time, Castaneda had a two centimeter lesion that he was concerned about.  Between March 2006 and January 2007, he sought treatment for his worsening condition.  In December 2006, he also reported a lump in his groin.  A PHS physician's assistant and three outside specialists advised on a number of occasions that Castaneda needed a biopsy to see if he had cancer.  Dr. Esther Hui, a civilian PHS employee who was in charge of Castaneda's medical care, and Commander Stephen Gonsalves, a commissioned PHS officer who was a health services administrator, denied the suggestions.  Instead, Castaneda was treated with ibuprofen and antibiotics.

The biopsy was finally authorized in January 2007.  ICE released Castaneda from custody on Feb. 5, 2007.  A week later, his biopsy results confirmed he had penile cancer.  His treatment was unsuccessful, and he died a year later.  Three months before his death, Castaneda sued the United States, Hui and Gonsalves in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, bringing medical negligence claims against the United States under the FTCA and Bivens claims against Hui and Gonsalves.  After his death, Castaneda's sister and daughter substituted themselves as plaintiffs.

The District Court denied Hui and Gonsalves' motion to dismiss in light of absolute immunity from Bivens actions under the FTCA, and Hui and Gonsalves filed an interlocutory appeal.  The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

[Editor's Note:  Full coverage will be in the May issue of Mealey's Litigation Report: Employment Law.  In the meantime, the opinion is available at www.mealeysonline.com or by calling the Customer Support Department at 1-800-833-9844.  Document #73-100514-028Z.  For all of your legal news needs, please visit www.lexisnexis.com/mealeys.]

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For more information, call editor Bajeerah LaCava at 610-205-1102, or e-mail her at bajeerah.lacava@lexisnexis.com.