Cartagena v. Martino-Villanueva, 8:22-cv-0842-KKM-SPF

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
PartiesSORALIZ CARTAGENA and NELSON FIGUEROA, individually and on behalf of their child, J.F., a minor, Plaintiffs, v. MARIA MARTINO-VILLANUEVA, M.D.; KRYSTA FEE, CNM, WOMEN'S CARE FLORIDA, LLC, and SUNCOAST COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTERS, INC., Defendants.
Docket Number8:22-cv-0842-KKM-SPF
Decision Date04 August 2022

SORALIZ CARTAGENA and NELSON FIGUEROA, individually and on behalf of their child, J.F., a minor, Plaintiffs,


No. 8:22-cv-0842-KKM-SPF

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

August 4, 2022


Kathryn Kimball Mizelle United States District Judge

Soraliz Cartagena and Nelson Figueroa, both individually and on behalf of their minor child, J.F., sued Suncoast Community Health Centers, Inc., Women's Care Florida, LLC, Maria Martino-Villanueva, M.D., and Krysta Fee, CNM, in the Circuit Court of the Tenth Judicial Circuit in and for Polk County, Florida, for medical malpractice and vicarious liability. These claims involve the medical care that Cartagena and J.F. received during J.F.'s birth at a Suncoast facility in March 2017. The United States removed the case, arguing that the exclusive remedy available to Plaintiffs as to three Defendants- Suncoast, Martino, and Fee-is against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims


Act (FTCA), given that the Secretary of Health and Human Services “deemed” them employees of the Public Health Service (PHS) by operation of the Federally Supported Health Centers Assistance Act (FSHCAA). See 42 U.S.C. § 233.

On March 30, 2022, this Court remanded to the Tenth Judicial Circuit because the United States failed to meet § 233(c)'s removal requirements. See Cartagena v. Martino-Villanueva, No. 8:21-cv-0547, 2022 WL 950945, at *5 (M.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2022) (Mizelle, J.). Specifically, the United States initially removed this action after the HHS Secretary deemed Suncoast a PHS employee but before the Attorney General certified that Fee and Martino were acting within the scope of their PHS employment at the time of the incident. See Allen v. Christenberry, 327 F.3d 1290, 1296 (11th Cir. 2003). It was only after Defendants originally removed the action that the Attorney General provided the certification. Section 233(c), however, requires both a deeming by the HHS Secretary and a within-the-scope certification by the Attorney General prior to removal. See Cartagena, 2022 WL 950945, at *4.

Following remand, the United States again removed this action, (Doc. 2), and again moves to substitute itself in the place of Suncoast, Martino, and Fee, (Doc. 5). Plaintiffs oppose the United States' motion to substitute, (Doc. 19), and again move to remand, (Doc. 18). Plaintiffs also move to stay the case and compel arbitration based on an agreement between Cartagena and the other defendant, Women's Care. (Doc. 17.) The


United States and Women's Care both oppose the motion to stay and compel arbitration, (Doc. 22; Doc. 23), and move to dismiss the action in its entirety, (Doc. 6; Doc. 7). Plaintiffs oppose these motions. (Doc. 20; Doc. 21.)

Plaintiffs also moved to stay the case and conduct limited discovery, arguing that such discovery was necessary to resolve the pending motions. (Doc. 24.) Both Women's Care and the United States opposed the motion. (Doc. 31; Doc. 32.) Following a hearing, the Court granted the discovery motion and limited the scope of discovery to interrogatories and document production related to employment contracts and billing records concerning Martino's independent-contractor agreement with Suncoast during Cartagena's labor and delivery. (Doc. 60.) With the Court's leave, both Plaintiffs and Women's Care filed supplemental briefs following discovery. (Doc. 61; Doc. 62.)

In the light of limited discovery and ripe briefing, the Court denies Plaintiffs' motion to remand and grants the United States' motion to substitute itself as a defendant for Suncoast, Martino, and Fee. An FTCA claim against the United States is Plaintiffs' exclusive remedy for medical negligence against those three defendants under the FSHCAA. The Court also denies Plaintiffs' motion to stay and compel arbitration since the arbitration agreement with Women's Care has no nexus with this dispute, and the United States never agreed to arbitrate the FTCA claim. As to Defendants' dispositive motions, the United States' motion to dismiss is granted because Plaintiffs' claims are


barred by the FTCA's statute of limitations. Finally, I decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claim against Women's Care and remand this action to state court.


A. Statutory Framework

The United States ordinarily enjoys immunity from suit. See FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994). But the federal government can choose to lower its sovereignimmunity shield by “unequivocally express[ing]” a waiver of sovereign immunity. United States v. King, 395 U.S. 1, 4 (1969).

The FTCA, otherwise known as the Westfall Act, provides a limited waiver of the United States' sovereign immunity in cases concerning federal employees. 28 U.S.C. § 2679(b)(1); see Osborn v. Haley, 549 U.S. 225, 230 (2007). Through it, Congress has waived the federal government's sovereign immunity when its employees are negligent within the scope of their employment. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b); see Brownback v. King, 141 S.Ct. 740, 746 (2021). The FTCA “applies to employees of the federal government” and was “not intended to apply to all persons or groups that are in any way associated or receive funding from the federal government.” Del Valle v. Sanchez, 170 F.Supp.2d 1254, 1264 (S.D. Fla. 2001) (Gold, J.). Nonetheless, the FSHCAA makes the FTCA the exclusive remedy for medical malpractice against PHS employees, meaning those employees or


contractors enjoy individual immunity from suit for conduct performed within the scope of their employment. 42 U.S.C. § 233(a); see Hui v. Castaneda, 559 U.S. 799, 806 (2010) (“Section 233(a) grants absolute immunity to PHS officers and employees for actions arising out of the performance of medical or related functions within the scope of their employment by barring all actions against them for such conduct.”).

“The FSHCAA provides authority to remove cases to federal court only in specific and limited circumstances.” Allen, 327 F.3d at 1293. As an initial matter, the state suit must be against a party that the HHS Secretary has “deemed” to be a PHS employee- meaning the HHS Secretary determined that the party is a federally funded “entity. . . [or] any officer, governing board member, employee, or contractor ... of such an entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 233(g)(1). After such a positive deeming by the HHS Secretary, the Attorney General may remove the action two ways. See Allen, 327 F.3d at 1294-95. Under the first route, the United States Attorney General must certify before removal that the defendant was acting within the scope of his employment at the time the incident giving rise to the suit occurred. See § 233(c). Under the second route, the Attorney General may appear in the state court action within fifteen days of being notified of the lawsuit and advise that court that the HHS Secretary has deemed the defendant to be a PHS employee. See § 233(1)(1). The only other avenue to federal court allows the defendants to remove and to seek a determination of their status from the district court if the Attorney General fails to


timely appear in state court. See § 233(1)(2); Allen, 327 F.3d at 1295 (generally describing the alternate routes to federal court).

After the removal requirements are satisfied, the district court then substitutes the United States as the proper defendant in place of the covered entities and individuals and dismisses the latter from the suit. See Thomas v. Phoebe Putney Health Sys., Inc, 972 F.3d 1195, 1198 (11th Cir. 2020) (“The United States is then substituted as the defendant, and the case proceeds against the United States under the FTCA.” (citing § 233(a), (c))); see also Hui, 559 U.S. at 810 n.9 (noting that § 233(c), unlike § 2679(d), does not detail a “particular mechanism for substituting the United States in federal-court actions”).

B. Facts

During her pregnancy, Cartagena received prenatal care through Suncoast. (Doc. 1 ¶ 11.) Cartagena also received limited medical services from Women's Care that were not available through Suncoast. (Doc. 18-3; Doc. 18-4.) On August 9, 2016, Cartagena entered into an arbitration agreement with Women's Care. (Doc. 17-1.) The agreement covers “claims for medical malpractice . . . arising out of or in any way relating to the diagnosis, treatment, or care of the patient by the undersigned provider of medical services [(Women's Care)], including any partners, agents, or employees of the provider of medical services.” (Id. at 1.) Subsequently, between August 2016 and March 2017, Cartagena underwent multiple prenatal tests at a Women's Care facility, including ultrasounds and


nonstress tests (NSTs). (Doc. 18-4.) The supervising physician over these prenatal tests was Jennifer Nixon, M.D, who is not a party to this case. (Id.)

On March 6, 2017, Cartagena was admitted to Lakeland Regional Medical Center (a Suncoast facility) for elective induction of labor at around forty-one weeks of gestation. (Doc. 1 ¶ 12.) Defendant Krysta Fee was the midwife during the day shift on March 7. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 8, 19.) Fee monitored Cartagena regularly and consulted with Defendant Martino, a licensed physician and the Ob/Gyn in charge of Cartagena's delivery. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 4-5.) Martino directly contracted with Suncoast, where she agreed to “provide professional Ob/Gyn physician services for the patients of' Suncoast, including “both hospital and outpatient services.” (Doc. 18-2 at 2-3.) Martino also had a separate employment relationship with Women's Care at the time of the delivery. (Doc. 61-3.)

On March 7, at around 2:55 p.m., Martino delivered Cartagena's baby girl, J.F., with the assistance of Fee. (Doc. 1 ¶ 24.) Approximately thirty seconds after delivery, the Natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) was called due...

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