(CN) - Federal law gives an Indiana agency that advocates for the mentally ill access to its client's hospital records, the 7th circuit ruled.
The Chicago-based court of appeals, sitting en banc, found that a hospital must give Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services access to patient records under the federal Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act of 1986.
If the hospital fails to comply, the agency can sue in federal court without running afoul of the Eleventh Amendment, the circuit found.
The full 7th Circuit ruled 8-1 to uphold a district court ruling, while reversing a decision by its own three-judge panel.
Larue Carter Memorial Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Indianapolis, denied the agency's request to see patient records after the death of one patient and allegations of abuse of another.
The agency sued the hospital in 2006, alleging violations of the Mental Illness Act. The hospital claimed that the law did not require it to hand over the records. The district court ruled for the agency, and the hospital appealed.
The 7th Circuit's three-judge panel reversed, however, finding that the Eleventh Amendment and the lack of a statutory cause of action barred the action. The full court reheard the issue and agreed with the district court.
Calling the lawsuit "a classic application of Ex parte Young," Judge David Hamilton wrote that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar the agency's request for declaratory and injunctive relief against state officials, because the suit "asks a federal court to order state officials to modify their conduct to comply with federal law."
A close reading of the Act, Hamilton wrote, reveals that "Congress expressed its intent to create a legally enforceable right of access to patient records vested in an identifiable class - protection and advocacy systems ... which act for the benefit and protection of mentally ill individuals who may have difficulty acting for themselves."
Hamilton added that "if and when those protection and advocacy systems are denied their right of access, the (Mental Illness Act) shows with sufficient clarity that the remedy is a suit to enforce the right of access in federal or state court."
The circuit modified the district court judgment to include only the named state officials in their official capacities, and affirmed as modified, with Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook dissenting.
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