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Court: Suit doesn't belong in federal court

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In a ruling that could impact pending litigation involving Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decided the agency doesn't have standing to bring suits in federal court.

Just last week, U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton of the Southern District of Indiana held in a separate suit brought by IPAS against the Indiana Department of Correction that IPAS could sue in federal court because it's independent of the governor and is funded by the federal government under the Protection and Advocacy of Mentally Ill Individuals Act (PAIMI).

But in Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services v. Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, et al., No. 089-3183, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decided today IPAS would have to file its suit in state court. IPAS sued FSSA, LaRue Carter Memorial Hospital, and several state officials in order to gain records on a mentally disabled adult patient who died while at LaRue Carter to find out if she was a victim of abuse. The District Court held the defendants had to hand over the records because the victim was an adult and her parents weren't appointed her legal guardians. FSSA argued releasing the records would violate the victim's parents' privacy.

Instead of ruling on the issue of whether the records should have been released, the Circuit judges examined whether IPAS even had standing to sue in federal court. The federal statutes that created systems like IPAS to investigate abuse and neglect of people with mental illness don't give them an express right of action, wrote Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook. Also, Indiana hasn't enacted legislation or promulgated regulations giving IPAS the powers listed in 42 U.S.C Sections 10805 and 10806.

IPAS also can't pursue a federal suit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, because it's a state actor and not a person for purposes of the statute.

"Indiana might have established its 'system' as a private entity, the way legal services corporations are organized," wrote the chief judge. "But because Advocacy Services is a public agency rather than a private corporation or foundation, it cannot use Section1983 and must sue in state rather than federal court."

The federal appellate court also ruled the 11th Amendment bars the suit in federal court. Chief Judge Easterbrook likened the instant case to Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held the 11th Amendment blocks enforcement of patent claims against states and their agencies.

"We do not see any reason why patent holders should be turned away on grounds of sovereign immunity while other demands concerning information in state hands would be unaffected by that doctrine," he wrote.

The 7th Circuit vacated the District Court's judgment and remanded with instructions to dismiss for want of jurisdiction. It also noted some future decisions will need to tackle the problems that arise when a "system" established as a private organization sues in federal court to obtain information from a private medical provider or when it sues its home state in state court.

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