Just about a few months ago, we touched on a unique case in the Connecticut court system that made its way on up to the state Supreme Court. The case had to do with whether or not a private nursing home facility that served patients under the state’s care as well as prison parolees could qualify for protection under a legal doctrine called sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a centuries-old legal doctrine that essentially protects the state from lawsuits of any type unless the government makes its eligible to be sued by individuals or any specific state under the Constitution or under the law.
Such immunity also may protect federal government officials from lawsuits in certain circumstances. One of the most common laws that grant standing to sue the federal government is the Federal Tort Claims Act. Sovereign immunity also exists on the state level, as states cannot be sued by individuals unless in situations where the states consents to such lawsuits. In Connecticut, for example, residents can sue for a violation of state constitutional rights, as well as for certain torts and injuries under various statutes.
In this particular case, the Rocky Hill nursing home in Connecticut offers services to state patients through a contract with the state. The Connecticut Department of Correction, Mental Health and Addiction Services, as well as Connecticut Department of Social Services hired iCare Management LLC to provide services for state mental patients as well as prison parolees. One of the company’s subsidiaries bought the facility and another subsidiary ran it under the contract with the state. As such, this contract with the state to care for state patients was the basis for its defense of sovereign immunity against a lawsuit brought by the town in which it operates.
The town did not want the facility to operate in that particular neighborhood and thus brought its lawsuit for the court to hand down an injunction to keep the facility closed because it was not properly zoned for such services and neighbors were concerned about having their families located so close to prisoners and mental health patients. The home argued that sovereign immunity exempted it from any such zoning regulations. A lower court judge originally dismissed the suit, and it went directly on appeal to the Supreme Court (skipping the intermediate appeals court in a fairly rare event).
State Court Decision
Just recently, however, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the home is not eligible for sovereign immunity, nor can it be exempt from zoning regulations. Just because the private facility was hired by the state to carry out a state function, this did not put the facility on par with a state agency such that it could be immune “from local interference, including lawsuits, zoning restrictions and the payment of property taxes.” All six justices of the court cast a vote against the sovereign immunity claim.
The decision means that the nursing facility is not exempt from zoning regulations, is not immune from lawsuits, and is also not exempt from paying local property taxes. It remains to be seen whether the lawsuit will go forward on remand or if the town and the facility can reach a settlement agreement, which would likely include moving the facility if agreed upon. The facility will also have to figure out with the government how much it owes in back taxes since it had not been paying in light of the lower court’s determination. Nevertheless, this is a unique and important decision that keeps a private facility from claiming immunity simply because it serves the state on a contract.
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