N.Y. Court Rules In Favor of Hospital in Life-Sustaining Care Case

A decision was rendered Thursday in Thomas et al v. Mohawk Valley Health System et al. In this action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, the plaintiffs, health care proxies for a patient who had suffered a stroke, sought a temporary restraining order seeking to compel the defendants Mohawk Valley Health System (Mohawk) to continue to provide nutrition, hydration, and other life support measures. The court ruled against the TRO, stating both that the plaintiffs had not shown that the issue met an exception in the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and also that the plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on the merits of the case.

Prior to the patient’s stroke, an advanced directive was signed indicating that the patient wished to receive “all possible life-sustaining care” but also “acknowledged that “death need not be resisted by any and every means and that she had the right to refuse medical treatment that is excessively burdensome or would only prolong [her] death and delay [her] being taken to God.” Within these contrary statements, there was no express statement of what was preferred to occur in the event of brain death. After the patient’s stroke, the hospital conducted examinations and concluded that the patient was brain dead and incapable of breathing on her own.

The hospital then filed an Order to Show Cause in the state court to permit the cessation of treatment and care under “NYS Guidelines”. After a hearing, in which the treating doctors testified as to the patient’s condition, the state court reviewed the advance directive and concluded under the language that no absolute determination could be made as to the patient’s intent in the event of brain death. The plaintiffs then appealed to the federal court for the TRO.

Under Rooker-Feldman, “lower federal courts lack “subject matter jurisdiction ‘over cases that effectively seek review of judgments of state courts.” The court held that a review of the certificate of death that has been issued for the patient describing her as brain dead would be a direct re-litigation of the issue presented before the state court and would be directly barred from review. The court also held that there was little likelihood of the plaintiffs prevailing under a future action or in future circumstances, which is a determinative factor in the review for a TRO.

Plaintiffs were represented by Office of Gina M. Antonelli and Dague & Martin. The defendants were represented by Hancock Estabrook.