False Claims Act whistleblowers expose themselves to significant risks by coming forward and asserting claims of fraud against the government. Often, the whistleblowers, called relators under the False Claims Act, would prefer to maintain their anonymity for personal or professional reasons, but their options to do so are limited.

A False Claims Act case is initially filed under seal, and remains under seal while the government investigates. However, once the government either intervenes in the action or declines to intervene, the seal is lifted, and the False Claims Act complaint is publicly filed. The complaint, and the identity of the relator, become public knowledge, even if the relator does not intend to go forward with the case.

In United States ex rel. Nash v. UCB, Inc., SDNY District Judge Thomas Griesa addressed a relator’s multi-pronged effort to remain unknown. The relator alleged that his former employer, UCB, Inc., had defrauded the federal government out of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds. The Government declined to intervene, however, and the relator intended to not proceed and to dismiss the action. The relator feared that his current employer might retaliate against him when it became known that he had filed an FCA case against his former employer. The relator sought to permanently maintain a seal on all documents in the case, or alternatively, to allow use of the pseudonym “John Doe” and to remove any information from the complaint that could reveal his identity.

The Court first noted the “firmly rooted” presumption of public access to judicial documents, which applies to pleadings such as a complaint. As to relator’s fear of retaliation, the Court did not find this risk to outweigh the presumption of public access to judicial documents. Moreover, the Court pointed to the False Claims Act retaliation provision, 31 USC § 3730(h), which protects a relator from discrimination or retaliation based on acts taken under the False Claims Act. The Court determined that this provision would protect against what it considered a “speculative fear” of employment retaliation. The Court denied the application to keep the case under seal.

Next, relator sought to have the complaint filed under a “John Doe” pseudonym, with the elimination of any identifying information. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a), however, states that “The title of the complaint must name all the parties.” Courts have discretion to allow a pseudonym in special circumstances, where the need for anonymity outweighs prejudice to other parties and the public interest, but the bar is high. Factors courts consider include:

  • Highly sensitive and personal matters
  • Risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the party or innocent non-parties
  • Likely severity of alleged harms
  • Particular vulnerability of party to possible harms of disclosure
  • Whether challenge is to Government or private actions
  • Possible mitigation of prejudice by the Court

Judge Griesa found that the relator’s articulated need for anonymity was based on “attenuated and speculative risks of harm,” particularly where the concern was not with the former employer that the relator had sued, but with the current employer that he had not. The Court declined to allow a pseudonym, stating that the public “has a right to know who is using their courts.”

The Court did allow relator’s final request, that references to his current employer be redacted from the filed version of the complaint. The Court found the weight of presumption of public access to the identity of relator’s current employer to be low. Moreover, redactions would not affect the public interest, as the substance of the fraud allegations would be clear from the unredacted portions of the complaint.

Once a case is filed under the False Claims Act, the relator loses control over remaining anonymous. A resort to yet another lawsuit if there is retaliation may provide cold comfort, but the Courts are very reluctant to permit a relator to remain anonymous, even where the government has declined and the case will be dismissed.  Balancing this risk is one of the many considerations for relator and relator’s counsel in commencing a False Claims Act case.

Few, if any, in the medical industry are unfamiliar with the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”).  Under AKS, those giving or receiving compensation for referrals for items or services reimbursed by the federal healthcare programs are subject to criminal prosecution.  The statute is intended to prevent exploitation of the federal healthcare system, avoid unnecessary inflation of program costs and encourage fair competition in the industry.

AKS prohibits, among other things, the knowing and willful payment or receipt of any form of compensation to induce or reward referrals involving any item or service payable by federal healthcare programs.  “Federal healthcare programs” include more than just Medicare and Medicaid – “any plan or program providing health care benefits, whether directly through insurance or otherwise, that is funded directly, in whole or part, by the United States government (other than the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program), or any state health care program” is included.  This means that remuneration for referrals in connection with items and services that are reimbursable under TRICARE, the Veterans Administration, Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, and block grant programs are all subject to prosecution under AKS.

 

Where items or services are not reimbursable by a federal healthcare program, providers and referring parties are not subject to AKS prosecution.  However, due to an emerging trend in prosecution, the absence of reimbursement from federal healthcare programs should no longer leave providers and referral sources with a sense of security that they cannot be prosecuted for kickback arrangements.

 

Prosecutors are increasingly bringing charges against payers and recipients of remuneration for referrals in the medical arena under the Travel Act.  The Travel Act criminalizes the use of the United States mail and interstate or foreign travel for the purpose of engaging in certain specified criminal acts.  The Travel Act typically enforces two categories of state laws – laws prohibiting commercial bribery (i.e. corrupt dealings to secure an advantage over business competitors) and laws addressing illegal remuneration, including specific provisions regarding improper payments in connection with referral for services.

 

In two very recent high profile cases, prosecutors brought charges against those allegedly involved in kickback schemes under the both AKS and the Travel Act – Biodiagnostic Laboratory Services in New Jersey and Forest Park Medical Center in Texas.  Both cases have resulted in several plea bargains, yet both have charges under AKS and the Travel Act that are still pending.  While no court has directly ruled on the merits of prosecuting kickback schemes for medical services and items under the Travel Act, it is noteworthy that, in the Forest Park Medical Center case, the charges under the Travel Act survived a motion to dismiss at the district court level just last month.

 

All parties involved in referral arrangements for medical items or services should be on heightened alert as a result of this development.  Whereas AKS can only be used to prosecute parties to a kickback arrangement where federal healthcare program funds are at issue, the use of the Travel Act may broaden prosecutors’ reach to the private payor sector, even where federal healthcare programs are not involved.

Trypanophobia—the fear of needles—played a significant role in a case brought against Rite Aid Pharmacy under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp., the Second Circuit overturned a jury verdict awarding substantial damages to a Rite Aid pharmacist who was terminated after he said he could not perform immunization injections because of a needle phobia.

In 2011, Rite Aid and other large pharmacy chains started requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations to fill an unmet need for vaccinations in the healthcare market. Rite Aid revised its pharmacist job description to include immunizations as one of the essential duties and responsibilities for pharmacists and required that each pharmacist hold a valid immunization permit.

Pharmacist Christopher Stevens asserted that his needle phobia was a disability under the ADA and sought a reasonable accommodation so that he would not have to perform immunizations.  Rite Aid responded that the ADA did not apply to trypanophobia, no reasonable accommodation was required, and he would be fired if he did not complete immunization training. When Stevens advised Rite Aid he could not complete the training, he was terminated for refusing to perform customer immunizations, an essential function of his job.

The Second Circuit first noted that, under the ADA, an employee must be qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Even viewing all evidence in the light most favorable to Stevens, the Court held that immunization injections were an essential job requirement for Rite Aid pharmacists. The company made a business decision to require pharmacists to perform immunizations, revised its job description to require immunization certification and licensure, and included immunizations in the list of “essential duties and responsibilities” for Rite Aid pharmacists. The Court found jury sympathy for Stevens’s phobia to be understandable, but held that “his inability to perform an essential function of his job as a pharmacist is the only conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence.”

The Court next determined that Stevens had not established that Rite Aid could have provided a reasonable accommodation, emphasizing that the issue was whether a reasonable accommodation would have allowed Stevens to perform the essential function of immunization, not whether he could perform his other non-immunization duties as a pharmacist.

The Second Circuit reversed the judgment in favor of Stevens, holding that performing immunization injections was an essential job requirement, and Stevens presented no evidence of a reasonable accommodation that would have allowed him to do them.

The Stevens case highlights two important points under the ADA. An employer’s written job description including the essential duties and responsibilities of a position can be strong evidence to support an ADA argument concerning the essential functions of the job. Moreover, a reasonable accommodation is directed to allowing the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, not simply finding other things that the employee can do.

The Second Circuit recently agreed to accept an interlocutory appeal to decide the question whether a violation of the False Claims Act’s “first-to-file” rule compels dismissal of the complaint or whether it can be cured by the filing of an amended pleading.

In United States ex rel. Wood v. Allergan, Inc., Relator John Wood brought FCA claims against Allergan, a pharmaceutical company that develops and manufactures eye care prescription drugs. Wood alleged that Allergan violated the FCA and the Anti-Kickback Statute by providing free drugs and other goods to physicians in exchange for them providing the company’s brand name drugs to Medicare and Medicaid patients.  SDNY District Judge Jesse Furman denied most of Allergan’s motion to dismiss in an 89-page decision, deciding several FCA first-to-file issues and certifying two for interlocutory appeal to the Second Circuit.

The Initial Qui Tam Complaint Violated the “First-to-File” Bar

The FCA’s “first-to-file” rule states that once a qui tam action has been brought, no person other than the Government may intervene or bring a related action based on the same facts. The primary purpose of the first-to-file rule is to help the Government uncover and fight fraud. The rule encourages prompt disclosure of fraud by creating a race to the courthouse among those with knowledge of the fraud.

Wood was not the first relator to bring FCA claims against Allergan for the alleged conduct. Two prior actions had been brought and were pending when the Wood qui tam complaint was filed. Therefore, at the time Wood’s qui tam complaint was filed, it ran afoul of the first-to-file bar and was subject to dismissal.

The Prior-filed Actions Were Dismissed Before Wood’s Action Was Unsealed and the Third Amended Complaint Was Filed

The Wood complaint, however, was under seal for several years, and Wood amended his complaint twice before the seal was lifted. While the Wood complaint remained under seal, the two prior actions were dismissed.  When the Government declined to intervene in the Wood action and the case was unsealed, there were no longer any prior-filed pending actions. Wood thereafter filed a third amended complaint. Allergan moved to dismiss on several grounds, including the “first-to-file” bar, arguing that when Wood’s initial qui tam complaint was filed, there were two pending actions alleging the same factual allegations.

The “First-to File” Bar Is Not Jurisdictional

Judge Furman first addressed whether the “first-to-file” bar is jurisdictional. Although the majority of circuit courts have held that it is, the district court’s holding in its March 31, 2017 decision that the bar is not jurisdictional foreshadowed the Second Circuit’s similar holding four days later, in United States ex rel. Hayes v. Allstate Insurance Co.  The Circuit in Hayes stated that the first-to-file rule provides that “no person other than the Government” may bring an FCA claim that is “related” to a claim already “pending.” The Court noted that the statutory language did not speak in jurisdictional terms or refer to the jurisdiction of the courts, in contrast to other sections of the FCA. As Congress is presumed to act intentionally when it includes jurisdictional language in one statutory section but omits it in another, the Court held the a court does not lack subject matter jurisdiction over an action barred on the merits by the non-jurisdictional first-to-file rule.

An Amendment After Dismissal of the Prior Action Can “Cure” a First-to-File Violation

The district court next addressed the question of whether the first-to-file bar required dismissal of Wood’s qui tam complaint. In Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, the Supreme Court had held that “an earlier [FCA] suit bars a later suit while the earlier suit remains undecided but ceases to bar that suit once it is dismissed.”  Wood therefore would be able to bring a new FCA claim as the two prior actions had been dismissed.

However, during the years that the case had been sealed, the statute of limitations had expired on most of Wood’s claims, so a dismissal without prejudice and a re-filing of his complaint would result in a dismissal of the claims on limitations grounds. The district court was therefore faced with a question the Supreme Court did not decide: whether a violation of the first-to-file bar can be “cured” by amending or supplementing the complaint in the later-filed action after dismissal of the earlier actions.

The district court held that first-to file violation can be cured by an amended or supplemented pleading.  The court noted that most courts answering this question in the negative had relied in large part on a conclusion that the first-to-file bar is jurisdictional. The district court in Wood, and later the Second Circuit, held that the bar is non-jurisdictional. The district court noted that courts routinely allow plaintiffs to cure violations of non-jurisdictional rules by amendment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 15. Also, allowing an amendment to cure a violation advances the primary purpose of the FCA, to permit the government to recover for fraud. The court opined that barring a relator in Wood’s position from curing his violation of the rule would undermine, rather than advance, the purposes of the FCA.

The Amendment Relates Back to the Date of the Original Complaint

The parties also disputed whether, for purposes of the statute of limitations, the relevant complaint was the initial complaint, filed when the prior actions were pending, or the third amended complaint, the first one filed after they had been dismissed. The court recognized that the “touchstone” of Rule 15 is whether the original pleading put the defendant on notice of the relevant claims, and that an FCA defendant is often not on notice of a qui tam complaint because it is under seal. Nevertheless, the court concluded that any such delay is beyond the relator’s control, and an otherwise diligent relator should not have claims stripped away when the government and not the relator is to blame for the defendant not receiving notice. The district court therefore held that the third amended complaint related back to the original complaint for limitations purposes.

The Second Circuit Will Address The First-to-File Issues

In August, the Second Circuit accepted the interlocutory appeal of two issues:

  1. Whether a violation of the FCA’s “first-to-file” rule requires dismissal or can be “cured” through the filing of a new pleading after the earlier-filed action has been dismissed; and
  2. If a violation of the first-to-file bar is curable, whether the FCA’s limitations period is measured from the date of the relator’s curative pleading or the original complaint.

Last week, the Second Circuit held that a False Claims Act relator does not have to plead details of specific alleged false billings or invoices to the government, as long as he can allege facts leading to a strong inference that specific claims were submitted and that information about them are peculiarly within the defendant’s knowledge.

In United States ex rel. Chorches v. American Medical Response, Inc., Paul Fabula was an emergency medical technician for AMR, the largest ambulance company in the United States. He alleged that AMR falsely certified ambulance transports as being medically necessary and submitted claims it knew were not medically reimbursable under Medicaid. He alleged that AMR routinely made EMTs and paramedics revise or re-create reports to include false statements demonstrating medical necessity in order to qualify for Medicaid reimbursement. Fabula subsequently declared bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy trustee became the relator.

Qui tam complaints, which allege fraud, are subject to Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b)’s particularity requirement. The Second Circuit determined that relator had adequately alleged a scheme to defraud. Relator, however, admittedly did not have personal knowledge of exact billing numbers, dates, or amounts for claims submitted to the government.

The focus of the Second Circuit’s inquiry, therefore, was whether every qui tam complaint must allege specific identified false billings or invoices. The Court answered in the negative, holding that “a complaint can satisfy Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement by making plausible allegations creating a strong inference that specific false claims were submitted to the government and that the information that would permit further identification of those claims is peculiarly within the opposing party’s knowledge.”

In Chorches, the Court found that the relator had met this standard by pleading sufficient facts, on personal knowledge, to demonstrate that billing information was peculiarly within the knowledge of AMR and that he was unable, without the benefit of discovery, to provide billing details for claims submitted by AMR to the government. Relator had also sufficiently alleged facts on personal knowledge supporting a scheme to defraud and a strong inference that false claims were actually submitted to the government.

This issue had been addressed by several other circuits, and in 2016, the Second Circuit noted a seeming circuit split on whether an FCA relator must allege the details of specific examples of actual false claims. In Chorches, however, the Court concluded that “reports of a circuit split are, like those prematurely reporting Mark Twain’s death, ‘greatly exaggerated.’” The Court then engaged in an extensive analysis of cases in other circuits, concluding that its pleading standard is fully consistent with both the emerging consensus in other circuits and its own precedents.

Several district courts in the Second Circuit have required a strict pleading of specific facts concerning individual billings or invoices to the government. Those decisions will now have to be re-examined in light of the pleading standard set by the Second Circuit in Chorches: “Rule 9(b) does not require that every qui tam complaint provide details of actual bills or invoices submitted to the government, so long as the relator makes plausible allegations . . . that lead to a strong inference that specific claims were indeed submitted and that information about the claims submitted are peculiarly within the opposing party’s knowledge.”

The Second Circuit also held in Chorches that the FCA’s public disclosure bar is not jurisdictional, and that an alleged refusal to falsify a patient report is sufficient at the pleading stage to qualify as protected activity for an FCA retaliation claim.

Health care fraud prosecutions in the Second Circuit and throughout the country have typically sought forfeiture money judgments against all defendants for the proceeds of the fraud obtained by all members of a health care fraud conspiracy.  The Supreme Court recently curtailed these efforts in Honeycutt v. United States.  In Honeycutt, the Court held that the forfeiture statute only permits a forfeiture money judgment for property a defendant actually acquired as part of the crime, not all proceeds of the conspiracy.

In Honeycutt, defendant Terry Honeycutt managed sales and inventory at his brother’s hardware store.  The brothers were prosecuted for conspiring to sell iodine with the knowledge that it was being used to manufacture methamphetamine.  The government sought a forfeiture money judgment of $269,751.98, constituting the hardware store’s profits.  The defendant’s brother pled guilty and agreed to forfeit $200,000.  The government sought and obtained a forfeiture money judgment against defendant Terry Honeycutt for $69,751.98, even though he did not personally benefit from the hardware store’s profits.  The Sixth Circuit held that the conspiring brothers were “jointly and severally liable for any proceeds of the conspiracy,” joining several circuits, including the Second Circuit, in an expansive view of criminal forfeiture.

Justice Sotomayor’s decision in Honeycutt strictly followed the language of the statute, 21 U.S.C. § 853, which mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain crimes.  The Court concluded that the provisions of the statute limit forfeiture to property the defendant himself actually acquired, not property obtained by other conspirators.  The Court held that the plain text of the statute and the limitation of forfeiture to property acquired or used by the defendant “foreclose joint and several liability for co-conspirators.”

Prosecutors have routinely sought to forfeit all proceeds of health care fraud and other conspiracies from all co-conspirators.  Thus, minor players in a conspiracy with significant assets could find themselves liable for a forfeiture money judgment well in excess of the proceeds they actually received from their crime.  In Honeycutt, the Supreme Court refused to apply the tort concept of joint and several liability to the forfeiture statutes, and has taken a sweeping tool away from the government.

 

The Supreme Court recently allowed liability through the implied certification theory of the False Claims Act (FCA), which was raised and upheld in Universal Health Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Escobar. The decision provided for a new applicable standard and resolved the split among circuit courts on whether to recognize the theory.

In Escobar, a teenaged patient was receiving health services from a mental health facility. The patient had an adverse reaction to medication prescribed and died of a seizure. The parents later discovered United Health Services sought reimbursement from MassHealth (the Massachusetts State Medicaid Program) for mental health services provided at the facility by individuals who did not meet the standards for licensure and other requirements. The parents then filed a qui tam suit relying on the implied certification theory of liability. The District Court ruled against the parents finding the claims for reimbursement were not expressly false because the facility made no express statement regarding the service providers. United States ex. rel. Escobar v. Universal Health Services, 780 F.3d 504 (1st Cir. 2015). On appeal, the First Circuit rejected the bright line approach and determined that compliance with licensure and other MassHealth regulatory requirements were conditions of payment sufficient to support an FCA suit. United States ex. rel. Escobar v. Universal Health Services., 780 F.3d 504 (1st Cir. 2015)

The Supreme Court held that implied false certification is a proper basis for liability under the False Claims Act where (1) “the claim does not merely request payment, but also makes specific representations about the goods or services provided”, and (2) “the defendant’s failure to disclose noncompliance with material statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirements makes those representations misleading half-truths.” The Court focused on defining the FCA’s materiality standard as whether the government’s knowledge of the noncompliance “would have” affected their payment decision rather than “could have”. The Court further explained that whether an obligation was a condition of payment relates to, but is not dispositive of, materiality.

Now, after Escobar, FCA plaintiffs must overcome a more demanding materiality standard when relying on implied false certification to establish False Claims Act liability.

Special thanks to Law Clerk Joanna Lima for her assistance in preparing this blog post.

The Supreme Court held last week that in a federal health care fraud prosecution, the Sixth Amendment prevents the government from obtaining a pretrial freeze of assets that were untainted by the alleged crime and that defendant sought to use to pay her lawyer.

In Luis v. United States, the government alleged that the defendant had been engaged in paying kickbacks and conspiring to commit health care violations, and had fraudulently obtained close to $45 million.  The government sought a pretrial order restraining $2 million under 18 U.S.C. § 1345, which allows a restraint on property obtained as a result of health care fraud or “property of equivalent value.”  Here, however, the property the government sought to restrain was not connected with the alleged crime, and defendant sought to use those funds to hire counsel to defend her in the criminal case.

The Supreme Court held that the pretrial restraint of legitimate, untainted assets needed to retain counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment. Justice Breyer’s plurality opinion first emphasized that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is “fundamental” and “guarantees a defendant the right to be represented by an otherwise qualified attorney whom that defendant can afford to hire.” The government argued that the important interests of keeping assets available for statutory penalties and compensation of victims justified the restraint.

Justice Breyer found controlling the fact that the funds at issue were untainted by the alleged crimes, so they belonged to the criminal defendant “pure and simple.” In contrast, tainted funds—assets connected to a crime—may be subject to pretrial restraint.  The Court, for example, has held that tainted funds subject to forfeiture may be restrained pretrial even if the defendant seeks to use those funds to pay a lawyer. Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989); United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600 (1989).  A significant factor in the forfeiture cases was that title to forfeited property passes to the government at the time of the crime.  The government, however, had no present interest in the defendant’s untainted funds in the case before the Court.

While in some circumstances a party without a present interest may restrain property, here the criminal defendant sought to use the funds to hire counsel, and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not permit such a restraint.  Justice Breyer noted that accepting the government’s position could erode the right to counsel, as Congress may provide more statutory provisions allowing for restraint of untainted assets equivalent in value to the criminal proceeds.

The decision did not break along usual lines for the Court. The plurality opinion authored by Justice Breyer was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor.  Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment, writing that he would not engage in any balancing and would hold strictly that the Sixth Amendment does not allow a pretrial asset freeze infringing the right to counsel.  Justices Kennedy, Alito and Kagan dissented, asserting on various grounds that where the government has established probable cause to believe that it will eventually recover all of the defendant’s assets, she has no right to use them pretrial to pay for a lawyer.

In the end, the decision draws a clear Constitutional line between: (1) tainted funds, which may be subject to pretrial restraint, and (2) innocent or untainted funds needed to pay for counsel, which may not.

Earlier this month, EDNY Judge Joanna Seybert examined the elements of Aggravated Identify Theft in an interesting context: a motion to unseal grand jury minutes in a health care fraud prosecution, United States v. Cwibeker

Defendants were charged with billing Medicare for fictitious or non-compensable treatments of residents of assisted living facilities.  Defendants would allegedly visit residents at the facilities, not provide Medicare-reimbursable services, and then generate a list of patients they allegedly visited.  Defendants would then use the list to submit fictitious claims to Medicare.  Significantly, defendants legally obtained the personal information from residents in the first instance; the alleged subsequent unlawful use of the information formed the basis of the criminal charges. 

Defendant Cwibeker argued that patients had consented to use of their personal information, and non-consent is an element of the Aggravated Identity Theft charge.  Thus, the grand jury minutes should be unsealed because this element was likely not disclosed.  

The Court first noted the long-established policy of maintaining secrecy of the grand jury.  The Court next looked to the Supreme Court’s three part analysis for allowing disclosure.  A party must show: (1) the material sought is needed to avoid a possible injustice; (2) the need for disclosure is greater than the need for continued secrecy; and (3) the request is structured to cover only the material needed. 

The Court denied the motion, holding that non-consent of the defendant’s purported patients for releasing the information is not an element of the Aggravated Identity Theft offense, which provides that whoever “knowingly transfers, possesses or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person,” is subject to an additional two years in prison. The Court found that consent of the victim has no bearing on “without lawful authority”  under the statute, as it is the improper use of the information that forms the offense.  The Court distinguished a Seventh Circuit case where the person whose identity was appropriated was a participant in the fraud.  In Cwibeker, the Medicare recipients whose identification was misappropriated were victims, with no knowledge of or participation in the alleged fraud. 

This case highlights again the need for vigilance concerning patients’ personal information.  Courts will hold persons who seek to profit from the improper use of such information accountable.  Providers must take all available steps to safeguard patient information, however, as those who allow such information to fall into the wrong hands will also be held accountable.

The Second Circuit yesterday rejected a Constitutional challenge to New York’s requirement that children be vaccinated to attend public school, and upheld a school’s decision to exclude from class, during a chicken pox outbreak, students with a religious exemption to the vaccination requirement. 

In Phillips v. City of New York, two Catholic parents received a religious exemption from the statutory vaccination requirement for their children. The statute provides an exemption for children of parents who have “genuine and sincere religious beliefs” against vaccination.   A state regulation provides that school officials may exclude children with an exemption from school “in the event of an outbreak … of a vaccine-preventable disease in a school.”  Plaintiffs’ children were excluded from school when a fellow student was diagnosed with chicken pox. 

Plaintiffs first argued that mandatory vaccination violates substantive due process.  The Court upheld New York’s requirement, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), that school vaccination is a proper exercise of the State’s police powers.  The Second Circuit rejected the argument that an alleged growing body of scientific evidence against vaccinations altered this rule.     

The Court next addressed the exclusion of plaintiffs’ children from school during the chicken pox outbreak, which plaintiffs alleged to be an unconstitutional burden on their free exercise of religion.  The Second Circuit held that the law was neutral and of general applicability, and therefore the State need nor show a compelling government interest, even if there was an incidental burden on religion.  The Court cited the Supreme Court’s statement in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), that “[t]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”  The Court determined that because the State could exclude unvaccinated children from school altogether, the more limited exclusion during a chicken pox outbreak was Constitutional. 

Another plaintiff on the appeal was not granted a religious exemption from vaccination for her children.  The District Court had adopted the Magistrate Judge’s findings that this plaintiff’s objections to vaccination were health-related and not based on genuine and sincere religious beliefs.  The Second Circuit held that this determination had not been appealed and could not therefore be addressed.