Appeals court rules that nursing homes can be sued for private civil rights violations

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A federal law related to the oversight and inspection of nursing homes creates a legal pathway for private civil rights lawsuits to be filed against nursing homes in cases of alleged wrongful death, a federal appeals court recently decided.

The federal Nursing Home Reform Amendments (FNHRA) were passed in 1987 and outline requirements for Medicare and Medicaid certification, including certain provisions governing quality of care and patients' civil rights, the Bureau of National Affairs reported. The plaintiff in this case, Sarah Grammar, sued the John J. Kane Regional Center at Glen Hazel in Pittsburgh, alleging that the facility violated her mother's civil rights as laid out under the FNHRA by providing inadequate care that eventually led to her death.

The legal recourse for civil rights violations is outlined in Section 1983 of the U.S. Code. The defendants argued that the FNHRA did not fully establish a set of rights for a certain class of people, and therefore Section 1983 could not be applied in this case.

A district court initially ruled in favor of the facility, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned that ruling on June 30. Using precedents set forth by the Supreme Court in two separate, earlier cases, the Appeals Court ruled that the FNHRA specifically guarantees a nursing home resident's civil rights, and that private action can be brought against a nursing home under U.S.C. Section 1983 to enforce those rights.