State Government Can’t Sue Itself, Court Rules

     (CN) – An Indiana agency that protects the interests of patients with developmental disabilities can’t sue the state’s social services administration to obtain the medical records of a mentally ill patient who died, the 7th Circuit ruled.

     A branch of state government cannot draw on federal civil rights laws to sue another branch of government, the Chicago-based appeals court decided. “Yet that is exactly what Advocacy Services is trying to do,” Chief Judge Easterbrook wrote. “This suit might as well be captioned Indiana v. Indiana.”
     Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services sued the LaRue Carter Memorial Hospital and the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, along with various state officials, over the state-run hospital’s refusal to turn over medical records of a deceased patient who was mentally ill.
     Advocacy Services, which oversees federal grant money for people with developmental disabilities, was looking for evidence of abuse that could be used to spur medical improvements.
     The district court ruled that the records must be released to the agency, as the patient was an adult at the time of death. But the hospital appealed, saying the patient’s parents would have to consent to record release. In addition, the hospital said, the records were protected under state privacy laws.
     Because Advocacy Services is a public agency rather than a private corporation or foundation, the agency has to sue in state court, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     The suit is also “blocked by the 11th Amendment,” Easterbrook added. Though the 11th Amendment establishes that federal law trumps states’ sovereign immunity, Easterbrook said the Supreme Court has never used the amendment to “let one arm of a state sue another.”
     “A state’s decision to accept federal funds is not enough, standing alone, to waive the state’s immunity from suit,” Easterbrook wrote. “Intramural disputes among governmental bodies can and should be worked out in political ways – or through the state courts.”
     The federal appeals court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction and said that other issues, such as Advocacy Services’ right to request patient information in the first place, will have to be dealt with later.
     The court added that Advocacy Services cannot go after state officials for ignoring federal statutes in this case, because the named individuals are state employees, not officeholders.

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