A California appeals court has reinstated a putative class action lawsuit filed by patients at sixteen nursing homes located in Alameda County. The defendants in Shuts v. Covenant Holdco, LLC, et al are related business entities that own and operate the homes. The plaintiffs allege various violations of state regulations regarding the quality of care provided to nursing home residents. After a superior court judge dismissed the case based on the defendants’ argument that only state regulators have the right to enforce nursing home standards, the court of appeals reversed and reinstated the case.
Covenant Care, a company based in Orange County, operates forty-five nursing homes in seven states. At least sixteen are located in Alameda County, California. The plaintiffs presented themselves as a putative class of people who resided in Covenant’s nursing homes during a “class period” from December 15, 2006 until December 16, 2010. State law, according to the appeals court, allows a current or former nursing home resident to file suit against the facility’s licensed operator for violations of the Patients’ Bill of Rights or other rights under state or federal law. The plaintiffs claimed that Covenant routinely understaffed its facilities in violation of state law, which they said requires a nursing home to provide each patient with at least 3.2 hours of skilled nursing care per day. Covenant allegedly failed to meet this requirement on at least thirty-five percent of the days in the class period.
Covenant’s demurrer to the complaint argued that the plaintiffs’ entire case relied on allegations of a breach of the minimum-nursing-hour requirement, but that the California Department of Health had the exclusive authority to enforce the requirement. The defendants also asserted the doctrine of equitable abstention, which allows a court to abstain from hearing a case that would require the court to act in the capacity of an administrative agency. The circuit court dismissed the plaintiffs’ case without leave to amend the pleadings. The plaintiffs appealed to the First Appellate District.
The appeals court limited its review to the questions of a private right of action and equitable abstention. The circuit court had held that the plaintiffs did not correctly plead the private right of action under the statute. The appeals court cited cases saying that patients have a private right of action under the Patients’ Bill of Rights, and it ruled that this applies to the nursing-hours standard as well. Regarding the doctrine of equitable abstention, the court reversed the circuit court, holding that equitable abstention is most appropriate when the situation requires an “economic or policy judgment” best left to the relevant administrative agency. In this case, the court held that the central issues remain “largely undefined,” and are well within the courts’ ability to handle. It remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings.
Nursing homes have a duty to provide diligent care and a safe environment for their residents, and people injured when they breach this duty may be entitled to damages. At Lebowitz and Mzhen we help people in Maryland obtain compensation for injuries caused by nursing home abuse or neglect. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or call (800) 654-1949.
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