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Swift v. United States

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 17, 2014

DONNA SWIFT. Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

JUDITH GAIL DEIN, Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiff, Donna Swift, has brought this medical malpractice action relating to treatment she received on or about February 8, 2010 from Dr. Mindy Parnes, who was employed by Harbor Health Services, Inc., d/b/a Mid-Upper Cape Community Health Center ("Harbor Health"). It is now undisputed that Harbor Health is a federally funded health center covered by the Health Centers Act, and, as a result, any claim for negligence is governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b) and 2671, et seq. Unfortunately, however, this was unknown to plaintiff's counsel until after the two year period for filing an administrative claim under the FTCA had passed.

This matter is presently before this court on the "Defendant's Motion to Dismiss" (Docket No. 18) brought pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), by which the Government seeks the dismissal of the complaint on the grounds that there is no jurisdiction over the claim in the absence of a timely administrative claim. In response, Swift asks this court to apply the doctrine of equitable tolling because counsel's search at the Secretary of State's Office to determine the corporate identity of Harbor Health did not indicate that the company was covered under the Health Centers Act. Therefore, counsel was unaware of the need to comply with the FTCA prior to filing suit.

Unfortunately, this court finds itself constrained by the recent case of Sanchez v. United States , 740 F.3d 47 (1st Cir. 2014), to find that more diligence in ascertaining the status of Harbor Health is necessary before the doctrine of equitable tolling can be invoked. The inquiry at the Secretary of State's Office, made more than two years after the allegedly negligent act, is insufficient to toll the statute of limitations. Therefore, despite the lack of any prejudice caused by the absence of a timely administrative claim, the motion to dismiss is ALLOWED.

II. STATEMENT OF FACTS

Standard of Review

When ruling on a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction brought pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), the court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts, and give the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences. Heinrich v. Sweet , 62 F.Supp.2d 282, 295 (D. Mass. 1999). The burden is on the plaintiff to prove jurisdiction. Viqueira v. First Bank , 140 F.3d 12, 16 (1st Cir. 1998). The court may look beyond the pleadings in order to determine if it has jurisdiction over the matter. Gonzalez v. United States , 284 F.3d 281, 288 (1st Cir. 2002), and cases cited. In fact, the district court has "very broad discretion in determining the manner in which it will consider the issue of jurisdiction." Valedon Martinez v. Hosp. Presbiteriano de la Comunidad, Inc. , 806 F.2d 1128, 1132 (1st Cir. 1986).

In the instant case, while the merits of plaintiff's claim are disputed, the facts relevant to the jurisdictional issue before this court are not in dispute. They are as follows.[1]

Plaintiff's Medical Treatment

Plaintiff Donna Swift is an adult woman who lives in Barnstable, Massachusetts. (Compl. ¶ 1). At all relevant times she was under the medical care of the defendant, Dr. Mindy Parnes, a licensed medical physician with an office in Hyannis, Massachusetts. (Id. ¶¶ 2-4). Dr. Parnes was employed by Harbor Health Services, Inc., a Massachusetts corporation with a trade name of Mid-Upper Cape Community Health Center. (Id. ¶ 5).

Swift suffered from seizures, which had been managed with a daily 300 mg dose of the prescription drug Dilantin. (Id. ¶ 8). On February 8, 2010, Dr. Parnes increased the dosage to 600 mg daily. (Id. ¶ 9). Swift claims that this was negligent, and that "as a direct and proximate result of the increased dosage, Swift suffered negative repercussions including loss of balance, pain and suffering, hospitalization, a period of physical therapy and financial loss." (Id. ¶ 11). Swift went to the emergency room, and was subsequently admitted into Cape Cod Hospital on June 26, 2010 as a result of "supratherapeutic Dilantin levels." (Pl. Ex. 1). She was discharged on June 29, 2010. (Id.). As detailed below, she filed suit on February 6, 2013 against Dr. Parnes and Harbor Health.

The Status of Harbor Health

It is now undisputed that at the relevant time, Harbor Health was "a Federally supported Health Center pursuant to the Federally Supported Health Centers Assistance Act of 1995 (42 U.S.C. § 233(g)(n))." (Def. Ex. B). As a result, Harbor Health and its employees are "provide[d] liability protection under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for damage for personal injury, including death, resulting from the performance of medical surgical, dental, and related functions[.]" (Def. Ex. A). The United States has acknowledged that Dr. Parnes "was acting within the scope of her employment as an employee of the United States at the time of the alleged incident." (Def. Ex. B). Thus, Harbor Health and Dr. Parnes "are deemed to be federal employees acting within the scope of their employment for acts and omissions[.]" (Id.). Any claims of negligence against Harbor Health and Dr. Parnes fall within the scope of the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b) and 2671, et seq. ...


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