CCH® Medicare — 5/17/11

Medicare and Medicaid

Court action by one state agency against another allowed by Supreme Court A federal court may hear a lawsuit for prospective relief against state agency officials brought by another agency of the same state, the U.S. Supreme Court has held. The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy (VOPA) had filed a complaint in federal court for an order requiring state officials in charge of state mental hospitals to produce certain records as part of its investigation of patient deaths and injuries at those hospitals. The state officials refused, asserting that a state-law privilege shielded the records from disclosure.

The federal district court held that the suit was permitted by the doctrine of Ex parte Young, a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that normally allows federal courts to award prospective relief against state officials for violations of federal law. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Ex parte Young did not apply because the suit was brought by a state agency (see ¶303,772.


The state privilege asserted by the state officials is based on “sovereign immunity,” which generally protects the state from being sued without its consent. The general criterion for determining when a suit is in fact against the sovereign is “the effect of the relief sought,” according to prior decisions of the Court. Federal court jurisdiction to decide on VOPA’s complaint is consistent with the precedent set by the Court’s prior decisions and does not offend the interests protected by sovereign immunity, the Court explained. The decision of the appellate court was reversed and remanded.

A similar case was decided by the 7th Circuit with the same outcome as the Supreme Court decision. The state agency that was required to produce patient records in Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services v. Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (¶303,771) petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, but was denied review on April 25, 2011. The denial allows the 7th Circuit decision to stand.

Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy v. Stewart, U.S. Supreme Court, April 19, 2011, ¶303,773

For more information on this and related topics, consult the CCH® Medicare and Medicaid Guide.

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