WASHINGTON (CN) - The treatment of imprisoned immigrants returned to the Supreme Court Tuesday in arguments over responsibility for the suffering of an immigrant who died after a bleeding, cancerous lesion on his penis went untreated and ultimately caused his death, but not until after his member had been amputated.
Before the court was the issue of whether hospital workers and administrators could be held personally responsible for negligence in the care provided to the man, Francisco Castaneda.
His daughter stepped in to continue the lawsuit, claiming that a doctor, the hospital administrator and the government violated her dad's constitutional rights to due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment while he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
Despite Castaneda's lesion, he was scheduled for a biopsy 10 months after seeking care, but was released from federal custody before the appointment.
Yanira Castaneda, the daughter, relies on a 1971 ruling in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics
that allows direct action against federal officers who violate a person's constitutional rights.
The ruling, however, came in the absence of legislation authorizing the suit, even following a change to the Federal Tort Claims Act mandating that awards won against the United States "shall be exclusive of any other civil action or proceeding" in cases for injuries from medical treatment by a federal health service employee.
But Castaneda claims Congress amended the act to exclude immunity for violations of a person's constitutional rights, although Congress did not reference the act it was amending, she maintains.
Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested the plaintiffs could be able to skip the government and sue the individuals. "I assume you could bring a Bivens
action first and the bar provision would not apply, assuming you can bring the Bivens
claim," he said.
The United States has already accepted responsibility for the malpractice, but an award has yet to be set.
A suit against the government can only result in a maximum of $250,000 in damages, under California law, and the case would not be subject to a jury trial. A suit against the individuals could be more rewarding for the plaintiffs.
Elaine Goldenberg from Jenner & Block defended the hospital workers. She said they were acting in the scope of their employment, making them immune to personal suits. She also said Congress was clear in its efforts to immunize its employees.
Conal Doyle from Willoughby Doyle represented the daughter. He argued that unless Congress specifically immunized employees from constitutional suits, then such immunity doesn't apply. He also said that the tort law includes a provision to insure a government employee against lawsuits, and that this means Congress did not mean to immunize its employees because immune employees would not need such insurance.
But Kennedy suggested that the individuals should not be liable. "The nature of immunity clauses are to make the employees secure against unforeseen causes of action as well as foreseen," he said.
Justice Antonin Scalia said Doyle's argument would ignore Congress' intent. "Then it doesn't matter what Congress was thinking, does it?"
The justices rarely interrupted the lawyers, interjecting mostly to clarify the facts of the case -- like how Congress amended the law.
The district court allowed the personal suits to continue and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.