Assisted living residents cannot sue under nursing home law in New Jersey, federal court rules

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A state law to protect nursing home residents cannot be invoked to bring a suit against an assisted living provider, a federal judge recently ruled, reversing his earlier decision.

The plaintiff, Helena Andreyko, alleged that her mother, who had dementia, had been beaten and neglected by the staff at a Sunrise Senior Living assisted living facility in New Jersey. Sunrise — which was acquired by Health Care REIT in 2012 — argued that the charges should be dismissed because the state's Nursing Home Responsibilities & Rights of Residents Act does not apply to assisted living communities.

A U.S. District Court initially ruled against Sunrise, but reversed itself after weighing the defendant's motion for reconsideration. The law does define “nursing home” broadly enough to include assisted living facilities, but it also distinguishes between the two settings, according to the Jan. 24 ruling.

The law specifically limits the use of arbitration agreements in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, but in other matters, the law does not explicitly extend protections to assisted living, Senior District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise noted. Furthermore, the “legislative scheme” of the state treats the settings differently with respect to “licensing, standards and regulations,” he wrote.

These factors suggest a “distinction” between the two settings, meaning the legislature would need to “expressly” create a resident rights law for assisted living, separate from the existing nursing home law, Debevoise ruled.

The judge seemed to advocate for such a law in his ruling.

“Considering the vulnerability of this population, there is little reason to distinguish these groups by enabling only one with an enforcement mechanism to realize its rights,” he wrote.

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