(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday ruled against the family of an immigrant whose cancerous penis was amputated after the government repeatedly denied him treatment for nearly a year. The justices said federal law “plainly” bars the relatives from suing the government doctor and health administrator responsible for his care.
The justices unanimously blocked a lawsuit filed by Francisco Castaneda’s estate, accusing a Public Health Service doctor of repeatedly refusing to order a biopsy of a bleeding lesion on Castaneda’s penis, first reported in March 2006.
Castaneda told medical personnel at the San Diego Correctional Facility that the irregular, raised lesion on his penis was growing, and that it frequently bled and oozed discharge, according to his family.
The lesion became so painful that it interfered with his urination, defecation and sleep. But Dr. Esther Hui, a PHS employee, allegedly refused to order a biopsy, despite repeated recommendations to do so, because she deemed the procedure “elective in nature.”
Castaneda was instead given ibuprofen, antibiotics, laxatives and an extra weekly allotment of boxer shorts.
A week after he was released from custody on Feb. 5, 2007, a biopsy revealed that he had penile cancer. His penis was amputated, and Castaneda underwent chemotherapy that was ultimately unsuccessful. He died in February 2008 at the age of 36.
A federal judge called the government’s actions “beyond cruel and unusual,” and the 9th Circuit agreed that the estate could sue Hui and health services administrator Stephen Gonsalves.
Arguments before the Supreme Court hinged on whether a change to the Federal Tort Claims Act bars the estate from suing federal employees in what’s known as a Bivens action, which allows direct action against federal officers who violate someone’s constitutional rights.
“Based on the plain language … we conclude that PHS officers and employees are not personally subject to Bivens actions for harms arising out of such conduct,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.
The ruling adheres closely to the text of the Federal Tort Claims Act, which mandates that awards against the United States “shall be exclusive of any other civil action or proceeding” for any medical injury caused by a federal health service employee “acting within the scope of his office or employment.”
Sotomayor said none of the estate’s arguments “persuades us that (the FTCA provision) means something other than what it says.”
Monday’s ruling shuts down the estate’s claims against Hui and Gonsalves.