Harris v. James

Citation127 F.3d 993
Decision Date06 November 1997
Docket NumberNo. 95-6861,95-6861
Parties, Medicare & Medicaid Guide P 45,750, 11 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. C 740 Willie Mae HARRIS, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated; Linda Patton, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated; Taenika Patton, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated; John Patton, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated; Tommy Gordon, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated; Bertha J., individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Fob JAMES, Governor; David Toney, Commissioner of the Alabama Medicaid Agency, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)

Henry Clay Barnett, Jr., Herman H. Hamilton, Jr., Clement Clay Torbert, III, James H. McLemore, Capell, Howard, Knabe & Cross, P.A., Montgomery, AL, James H. Evans, Jeff Sessions, Montgomery, AL, Charles H. Durham, III, Alabama Medicaid Agency, Montgomery, AL, for Defendants-Appellants.

J. Richard Cohen, Ellen Bowden, Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, AL, Lawrence F. Gardella, Legal Services Corp. of AL, Montgomery, AL, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

Daniel Aibel, U.S. Dept. of HHS, Washington, DC, for Amicus.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.

Before ANDERSON, Circuit Judge, and FAY and KRAVITCH, Senior Circuit Judges.

ANDERSON, Circuit Judge:

In the instant case, plaintiffs-appellees brought a class action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Alabama's Medicaid plan was not in compliance with a federal regulation requiring State Medicaid plans to ensure necessary transportation for recipients to and from providers. The district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs and later approved a remedial plan agreed to by the parties. On appeal, the State officials (hereinafter referred to as "the State") argue that the regulation does not create a right enforceable in a § 1983 action. For the reasons below, we accept the officials' argument and reverse the judgment of the district court.

I. FACTS AND BACKGROUND

Here, we set out only the facts relevant to the instant appeal. In particular, because the State does not challenge the district court's conclusion that the plan was not in compliance with the regulation, we do not detail the facts underlying the lower court's finding of noncompliance. 1

We begin by revisiting our previous description of the Medicaid program. In Silver v. Baggiano, 804 F.2d 1211 (11th Cir.1986), we wrote:

Medicaid is a cooperative venture of the state and federal governments. A state which chooses to participate in Medicaid submits a state plan for the funding of medical services for the needy which is approved by the federal government. The federal government then subsidizes a certain portion of the financial obligations which the state has agreed to bear. A state participating in Medicaid must comply with the applicable statute, Title XIX of the Social Security Act of 1965, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1396, et seq., and the applicable regulations.

Id. at 1215.

On November 2, 1994, the plaintiffs filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing that the State's Medicaid plan failed to ensure non-emergency transportation as required by federal law. Specifically, the plaintiffs relied on a regulation which provides:

A State plan must--

(a) Specify that the Medicaid agency will ensure necessary transportation for recipients to and from providers; and

(b) Describe the methods that the agency will use to meet this requirement.

42 C.F.R. § 431.53. The defendants moved for dismissal or, alternatively, for a stay pending "administrative and legislative review and action." In a memorandum order denying the motion, the district court described the arguments raised by the defendants' brief:

The most important of these [arguments] is Defendants' contention that no specific non-emergency transportation benefits are mandated by federal statute. They argue that the statute itself does not require transportation, so that the regulation referring to transportation goes beyond the congressional mandate. Therefore, Defendants contend, the regulation does not create a right which is enforceable under § 1983. They argue further that although the Medicaid regulations that implement the statute recognize the need for transportation, those regulations fail to spell out any specific parameters or requirements regarding transportation. Defendants contend that the issue has been left non-specific so that each state may best deal with this issue as it sees fit. Consequently, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have not asserted a valid cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

883 F.Supp. 1511, 1513 (M.D.Ala.1995). In a thorough opinion, the district court reviewed the relevant case law and rejected the defendants' arguments. Id. at 1514-22. After the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, 896 F.Supp. 1120 (M.D.Ala.1995), the defendants filed the instant appeal.

II. ISSUE

The narrow issue presented for decision today is whether Medicaid recipients have a federal right to transportation which may be enforced in an action under § 1983. 2

III. DISCUSSION

We begin by reviewing the Supreme Court's case law governing whether and under what circumstances violations of federal statutes create a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 3 Then, we apply that case law to the case before us today.

A. The Supreme Court's Case Law

In 1980, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that § 1983 creates a cause of action only for constitutional violations and for the violation of civil rights and equal protection laws; the Court held that the statute encompasses claims based on "purely statutory" violations of federal law. Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1, 100 S.Ct. 2502, 65 L.Ed.2d 555 (1980). By 1987, the Supreme Court had recognized two limitations to the broad proposition that § 1983 is available to enforce violations of federal statutes by agents of the state. See Wright v. Roanoke Redevelopment & Hous. Auth., 479 U.S. 418, 423, 107 S.Ct. 766, 770, 93 L.Ed.2d 781 (1987) (citing decisions subsequent to Thiboutot ). First, plaintiffs cannot sue under § 1983 for violations of a federal statute where "Congress has foreclosed such enforcement of the statute in the enactment itself." Id. Second, because § 1983 speaks in terms of "rights, privileges, or immunities," not merely violations of federal law, only "federal rights" are enforceable under § 1983. Id. Because our resolution of the instant case turns on the second of the two limitations--i.e., the "federal rights" issue, we do not detail the portions of the Supreme Court decisions dealing with the first limitation. 4

In Wright, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendant housing authority had overbilled them for utilities and had thus violated a federal statute imposing a rent ceiling and the statute's implementing regulations, which required public housing authorities to include a reasonable utility allowance in tenants' rent. In answer to the defendant's claim that neither the statute nor the regulations gave the tenants an enforceable right within the meaning of § 1983, the Court wrote succinctly:

We perceive little substance in this claim. The Brooke Amendment could not be clearer: as further amended in 1981, tenants could be charged as rent no more and no less than 30 percent of their income. This was a mandatory limitation focusing on the individual family and its income. The intent to benefit tenants is undeniable. Nor is there any question that HUD interim regulations, in effect when this suit began, expressly required that a "reasonable" amount for utilities be included in rent that a PHA was allowed to charge, an interpretation to which HUD has adhered both before and after the adoption of the Brooke Amendment. HUD's view is entitled to deference as a valid interpretation of the statute, and Congress in the course of amending that provision has not disagreed with it.

Respondent nevertheless asserts that the provision for a "reasonable" allowance for utilities is too vague and amorphous to confer on tenants an enforceable "right" within the meaning of § 1983 and that the whole matter of utility allowances must be left to the discretion of the PHA, subject to supervision by HUD. The regulations, however, defining the statutory concept of "rent" as including utilities, have the force of law ..., they specifically set out guidelines that the PHAs were to follow in establishing utility allowances, and they require notice to tenants and an opportunity to comment on proposed allowances. In our view, the benefits Congress intended to confer on tenants are sufficiently specific and definite to qualify as enforceable rights under Pennhurst [Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1, 101 S.Ct. 1531, 67 L.Ed.2d 694 (1981) ] and § 1983, rights that are not, as respondent suggests, beyond the competence of the judiciary to enforce.

Id. at 430-32, 107 S.Ct. at 773-75 (footnotes omitted). 5

In Golden State Transit Corp. v. City of Los Angeles, 493 U.S. 103, 110 S.Ct. 444, 107 L.Ed.2d 420 (1989), the Court considered whether the petitioner, a cab company involved in a labor dispute, could sue under § 1983 to vindicate violations of the rule of law announced in Lodge 76, International Ass'n of Machinists and Aerospace Workers v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Com'n, 427 U.S. 132, 96 S.Ct. 2548, 49 L.Ed.2d 396 (1976). In Machinists, the Court had "reiterated that Congress intended to give parties to a collective-bargaining agreement the right to make use of 'economic weapons,' not explicitly set forth in the Act, free of government interference." Golden State Transit, 493 U.S. at 110-11, 110 S.Ct. at 451. In Golden State Transit, petitioners brought suit under § 1983 seeking monetary damages for city interference which the...

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