7th Circuit rejects hospital's claims for $20M more in federal aid

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Columbus Regional Hospital, which was flooded following heavy rains in southern Indiana in 2008, is not entitled to an additional $20 million in disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in addition to the $70 million it already received, the 7th Circuit concluded Wednesday.

In Columbus Regional Hospital v. Federal Emergency Management Agency, 12-2007, the federal appellate court tackled two issues: whether the District Court was the proper venue for the lawsuit and the merits of the suit.

The lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Indiana, but under the Tucker Act, suits seeking more than $10,000 in monetary damages are to move before the Court of Federal Claims. The judges concluded that the District Court was the right venue because it’s the only court that can serve as a forum for all of the hospital’s legal theories, which include claims under the Stafford Act and the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The 7th Circuit rejected FEMA’s claim that everything it does is a “discretionary function” so there can never be an obligation to pay more than the agency decides is due. Switching focus to the lawsuit, the hospital contended that FEMA must cover the replacement cost of equipment and supplies destroyed by the flood, and that includes new equipment. The court found FEMA’s approach – to value property lost as cost (basis) less depreciation – to make sense in that it gives all victims the value of what they lost, and no more.

“Disaster benefits are a subsidy, and no one is entitled to a greater subsidy than the statute mandates,” Chief Judge Easterbrook wrote. “If a fast-food restaurant gets the depreciated value of a fryer or milkshake mixer, a hospital gets the depreciated value of a magnetic resonance imager.”

The second issue involves the proceeds the hospital received from insurance. FEMA concluded property damage represented roughly two-thirds of the hospital’s losses within the policy’s scope, so it attributed around $16 million of the $25 million in insurance proceeds to the property damage and deducted that amount from the federal funds. The hospital claims that no deductions should be made because it used the $25 million to cover expenses such as salaries and the cost of moving patients.

“ … as far as we can see nothing in the Stafford Act or any regulation prevents the agency from imputing all insurance proceeds to covered claims. FEMA did the Hospital a favor when it allocated a third of the proceeds to losses outside the scope of the Stafford Act, and thus deducted only $16 million rather than $25 million from the Hospital’s claim,” Easterbrook wrote.

“The Hospital tells us that it now has pursued its administrative remedies and filed a second suit under the FTCA. We expect it to be met with a defense of claim preclusion (res judicata) as well as the observation that the suit is substantively feeble, but we leave that to the court where the FTCA litigation is pending.”


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