State Tort Claims Against Federal Physicians Require DHHS Administrative Exhaustion, Rules S.D. Fla.

On November 6, in the Southern District of Florida, Judge Federico Moreno tossed out a legal action brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) by a recipient of mental health services, Alexey Lebedinsky, against the federal government, ruling that the plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies, choosing instead to try to file a claim in Florida state court under similar Florida state law. The court held this was disallowed, as only federal courts are allowed to hear tort claims against federal parties when said claims are rooted in “personal injury caused by a (federal) officer or employee performing a medical or related function ‘while acting within the scope of his office or employment.’” This is the case, the court elaborated, even when the FTCA claims are heard in conjunction with valid state tort claims. 

Judge Moreno laid out the pertinent facts as follows: The plaintiff alleged he had been falsely imprisoned because he was never informed of the right to voluntarily leave a federal psychiatric facility. As such, Lebedinsky filed an administrative complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and commenced a state court legal action in Florida. In the state court proceedings, the plaintiff proffered that the federal physicians violated Fla. Stat. Ch. 394.459 which, “as alleged, states that service providers for ‘individuals receiving mental services’ must provide the patient ‘with statutorily mandated rights.’” The defendant then moved to remove the case to federal court, arguing that FTCA claims against medical physicians can only be heard in federal court, even when accompanied by valid state court claims. 

The district court issued a written proclamation in favor of the government by denying the plaintiff a motion to remand to state court, while concurrently granting the defendant a dismissal motion until such time as the plaintiff exhausted DHHS remedies. Judge Moreno explained that the law mandates that once a federal physician is unequivocally determined to be a federal employee who engaged in the alleged injurious actions at issue during the scope of the purported injuring party’s employment, subject-matter jurisdictional limitations occur. The limitations decree that FTCA claims must only be heard after completing the administrative grievance process within DHHS, with post-exhaustions adjudications occurring only in federal court. The court, albeit nonetheless dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint until DHHS proceedings concluded, took judicial notice of the reality that the corollary of the ruling operated to prevent the state claims from also being heard until administrative exhaustion occurred. Judge Moreno concluded that the law was clear, as “the (FTCA) governs all the claims asserted in this case, even those that are exempt from the Act, (mandating that) this court cannot remand any claims.” 

The plaintiff is represented by the Health & Medicine Law Firm.