Big Victory for U.S. Public Health Service

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unanimously sided with the U.S. Public Health Service in a case that decided whether USPHS medical professionals are personally liable for negligent care they provide in their professional capacity. A lower court, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, held that they are. Supporters of USPHS warned that holding threatened its ability to recruit and retain medical professionals and to respond to major disasters, such as hurricanes or terrorist attacks.

The case, Hui v. Castaneda, No. 08-1529, involved an immigrant detained for 11 months at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in San Diego, Calif. A PHS physician and a commissioned officer treating him would not authorize a biopsy for a worsening lesion that ultimately, after his release, was diagnosed as metastasized penile cancer. The freed detainee, Francisco Castaneda, filed a lawsuit against the PHS personnel a few months before he died.

The American Civil Liberties Union and three members of the U.S. House of Representatives -- Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., Judiciary Committee chairman; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chair of Judiciary's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law; and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chair of Judiciary's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties -- contended the medical care provided in the underlying case was cruel and indifferent, and making USPHS professionals personally liable is necessary to prevent abuse of incarcerated patients and other vulnerable populations they serve.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the unanimous opinion, which reversed the 9th Circuit's decision and held that the Federal Tort Claims Act is the sole remedy for harms committed by PHS officers or employees within the scope of their office or employment.

The Commissioned Officers Association of the United States Public Health Service Inc., The Uniformed Services Academy of Family Physicians Inc., the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Family Physicians filed an amicus brief noting that 2,199 of the 6,122 USPHS Commissioned Corps officers on active duty between Aug. 26 and Nov. 7, 2005, deployed at least once in response to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita to provide care for their victims.

"Today's ruling heightens the urgency for Congress to take immediate action to reform the immigration detention system," Joanne Lin, ACLU's Legislative Counsel, said in an article posted Monday on the ACLU Web site. "Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement has proven that it cannot be trusted to police itself on immigration detention, it is crucial that meaningful immigration detention reforms be a part of any comprehensive immigration reform legislation and that Congress exercise strong, meaningful oversight of ICE."

Posted by Jerry Laws on May 03, 2010

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