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Johnson v. Judy fitzgerald, Commissioner

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

September 10, 2019



          Christopher L. Ray United States Magistrate Judge.

         Reginald Johnson, acting through his mother, Ella Johnson, has filed a Complaint challenging a determination that his preferred service provider, who is also Ella's sister, is not an eligible provider. See doc. 1 at 2; doc. 10 at 3. In order to clarify plaintiff's claim, the Court stayed this case and directed the parties to brief the question of whether the Complaint sufficiently invoked any constitutionally protected right to confer standing to sue on the plaintiff. See doc. 57 at 18. The parties have complied. Docs. 61 & 65.[1]

         As the Court's previous Order and Report and Recommendation explained:

[Q]uestions have arisen concerning the viability of [plaintiff's] claim. In a recent filing, Johnson contends that “due process is the core of this complaint.” Doc. 37 at 2. The cited cases, however, make clear that not every withdrawal or refusal of public benefits violates a recipient's due process rights. See K.W. ex rel. D.W. v. Armstrong, 789 F.3d 962, 972 (9th Cir. 2015). None of the cases that plaintiff has cited, and none that the Court is aware of, establish that a benefit recipient has a sufficient interest in a particular method of service-delivery to support a due process challenge. Although defendant's brief opposing the preliminary injunction touches tangentially on the nature of Johnson's claim, in arguing that he has not established the likelihood of success necessary, defendant has not moved to dismiss or challenged his standing. See doc. 41 at 9-12.
The nature of Plaintiff's claim matters because it calls into question his standing, whether litigated through a guardian ad litem or otherwise, to prosecute this case. See, e.g., Gonzalez ex rel. Gonzalez v. Reno, 86 F.Supp.2d 1167, 1181 (S.D. Fla. 2000) (noting, despite terminological similarity, a “[p]laintiff's standing is a distinct inquiry from that of [his guardian's] capacity to act as Plaintiff's next friend [or guardian ad litem].”). Standing is a component of the Constitution's limitation of federal judicial power to “cases” and “controversies.” See Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750 (1984). As an aspect of this constitutional limitation, standing determines this Court's jurisdiction. It cannot be waived by any party and the Court has an obligation to raise the issue on its own motion, if necessary. See Bischoff v. Osceola Cty., Fla., 222 F.3d 874, 877-78 (11th Cir. 2000) (as the Supreme Court made clear in United States v. Hays, 515 U.S. 737[, 742] . . . (1995), “[t]he question of standing is not subject to waiver . . . . ‘The federal courts are under an independent obligation to examine their own jurisdiction, and standing is perhaps the most important of [the jurisdictional] doctrines.'”).
To establish standing, “for purposes of . . . procedural due process[. . .] claims, plaintiffs must show that they had an identifiable personal stake in the property [or liberty] rights at issue.” Santiago-Ramos v. Autoridad de Energia Electrica de Puerto Rico, AEE, 834 F.3d 103, 106 (1st Cir. 2016) (footnote added); see also Doe v. Florida Bar, 630 F.3d 1336, 1342 (11th Cir. 2011) (plaintiff alleging due-process violation must allege “a deprivation of a constitutionally-protected liberty or property interest; state action; and constitutionally inadequate process.”); Royal Oak Entertainment, L.L.C. v. City of Royal Oak, 316 Fed.Appx. 482, 486 (6th Cir. 2009) (“This Court has consistently held that a plaintiff who brings a . . . procedural due process claim must identify a protected liberty or property interest.” (cite omitted)). Further, the assertion that a due-process violation has occurred is not a factual allegation the Court is required to credit. See Lord Abbett Mun. Income Fund v. Tyson, 671 F.3d 1203, 1207 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Edwards v. Prime, Inc., 602 F.3d 1276, 1291 (11th Cir. 2010) (“We are not required to accept as true the [plaintiff's] legal conclusion that a Fourteenth Amendment violation occurred.”)).
The Supreme Court has held that no constitutionally-protected liberty or property interest supported nursing home residents' suit seeking a hearing before their home's Medicaid funds were terminated. See O'Bannon v. Town Court Nursing Center, 447 U.S. 773, 784 (1980). O'Bannon rejected the both the argument that the residents had “a property right to remain in the home of their choice absent good cause for transfer, ” and that the emotional and physical consequences of their transfer were “tantamount to a deprivation of liberty.” Id. The Court noted that “since decertification [of a particular home] does not reduce or terminate a patient's financial assistance, but merely requires him to use it for care at a different facility, regulations granting recipients the right to a hearing prior to a reduction in financial benefits are irrelevant.” Id. at 786 (emphasis added). Although more qualified, it also found that an administrative determination, directed against a third party, does not implicate due process. The Court analogized the effect of the government's decision to withhold public funds from a particular provider to the revocation of a provider's license. Id. at 787. Similarly, whether the Department will continue to compensate Ella's sister for the care she provides to plaintiff arguably “does not turn the [refusal] into a governmental decision to impose [the] harm” that such cessation would cause. See Id. at 789.

Doc. 57 at 8-13. Having considered the parties' arguments, the Court can now determine whether Johnson has standing to pursue his claim.

         The Commissioner's argument focuses on the Supreme Court's analysis in O'Bannon to refute Reginald's standing. See doc. 61 at 4. The Commissioner argues that in this case, “[a]s in O'Bannon, DBHDD has not terminated or reduced the Medicaid benefits Plaintiff receives; rather, DBHDD simply maintains that Ms. Johnson's sister cannot be the particular provider to whom those benefits are directed.” Id. The Commissioner further argues that the Department had no obligation to provide a hearing to the provider before revoking her eligibility.[2] See id. at 61. Finally, she argues that, even assuming Johnson had some due-process right, his mother “received a warning letter in 2016 detailing the policy violations that needed to be rectified[, and] . . . [she' signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the terms and conditions of the . . . program that specified that the participant/representative may be terminated from the [provider] option involuntarily when the responsibilities of the . . . program are not met.” Id. at 6.

         Johnson responds by reiterating that his “complaint is based on his due process right to self-directed services which plaintiff had entitlement to a year prior to defendant approving family hire services based on defendant's finding that approval for such services were warranted.” Doc. 65 at 1. He also disputes the Commissioner's construction of the correspondence that was exchanged, identifying discrepancies he contends “show[] even more deficiencies in the handling of its responsibility further supporting WHY due process in this matter is warranted.” Id. at 2. Despite these arguments, the Commissioner has the law right.[3]

         The Court wishes to emphasize that nothing in its determination of Johnson's ability to sue the Commissioner in this matter amounts to a determination concerning the validity of his or his mother's feelings about these circumstances. Nevertheless, this Court is bound to follow the law, and the law is that he cannot sue. The determinations most applicable to the facts of this case are simply not the general due process principles articulated in Goldberg v. Kelley, 397 U.S. 254 (1970)[4] which Plaintiff has consistently relied upon; they are the determinations reached in O'Bannon. Specifically, the Court's recognition that: “[t]he simple distinction between government action that directly affects a citizen's legal rights . . . and action that is directed against a third party and affects the citizen only indirectly or incidentally, ” precludes the relief plaintiff seeks. O'Bannon, 447 U.S. at 788. As in O'Bannon, “the fact that the decertification of a [particular provider] may lead to severe hardship for [Johnson] does not turn the decertification into a governmental decision to impose that harm.” Id. at 789. Determinations of a particular provider's eligibility to receive public funds does “not directly affect [their] patients' legal rights or deprive them of any constitutionally protected interest in life, liberty, or property.” Id. at 790. That principle applies despite the real risk that those patients, in general, and Reginald, in particular, may suffer serious hardship because of their disqualification.

         In the absence of any apparent constitutionally protected interest, and given Johnson's emphatic assertion that his claim arises from his rights to due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Court should find that he lacks standing. Accordingly, his Complaint should be DISMISSED for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Since he lacks standing, Johnson's “Motion for Summary Judgment, ” doc. 51, should be DENIED. The Commissioner's Motion to Compel discovery, doc. 49, and Motion for Extension of Time to Respond to the summary judgment motion, doc. 54, are DENIED as moot.

         This Report and Recommendation (R&R) is submitted to the district judge assigned to this action, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and this Court's Local Rule 72.3. Within 14 days of service, any party may file written objections to this R&R with the Court and serve a copy on all parties. The document should be captioned “Objections to Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendations.” Any request for additional time to file objections should be filed with the Clerk for consideration by the assigned district judge.

         After the objections period has ended, the Clerk shall submit this R&R together with any objections to the assigned district judge. The district judge will review the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). The parties are advised that failure to timely file objections will result in the waiver of rights on appeal. 11th Cir. R. 3-1; see Symonett v. V.A. Leasing ...

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