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Supreme Court to hear Indiana civil rights case

Activists warn Talevski v. HHC could make protecting civil rights more difficult.

INDIANAPOLIS — On Nov. 8, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear a case that started in a Valparaiso, Indiana, nursing home. Gorgi Talevski was a Macedonian immigrant and master carpenter, who came to America in the 1970s. He developed dementia, and by 2016, needed 24-hour care his wife and daughters could not provide. So they took him to a nearby nursing home.

The nursing home and its parent company, the Health & Hospital Corporation of Marion County, say Talevski  became sexually inappropriate, according to the case filing. The family says the nursing home drugged Talevski unnecessarily, and that it amounted to "chemical restraint," according to their lawsuit. HHC denies it did anything wrong. Talevski's family decided to sue.

But this went from a family's lawsuit against a nursing home to a national issue when HHC filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. It is arguing that people should not be able to sue in federal court to enforce their civil rights under what is called the Spending Clause.

The Spending Clause is the part of the U.S. Constitution that says Congress can spend money. Since the 1930s, the Supreme Court has ruled that it lets Congress tell state and local governments what to do with money it gives those governments. This is how the federal government sets minimum standards for programs like Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP and the Americans with Disabilities Act. When states violate those standards, people can sue.

Gorgi Talevski was a Medicaid patient. His family is suing because they say HHC violated the rights Congress guaranteed back in 1987. HHC — which runs the Marion County Public Health Department, Eskenazi Hospital, and 78 nursing homes — says even if they did violate those rights, it would not be grounds for Talevski's family to sue, according to court documents.

Credit: Susie Talevski

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"Basically, this case asks the following question," said Steve Sanders with IU's Maurer School of Law, "When Congress spends money or gives money to state and local governments to do something, and says those governments need to honor people's rights — in this case, in nursing homes — can the people in the nursing home, victims of misconduct, sue in federal court to say, 'My guaranteed rights have been violated?'"

Sanders said only federally funded programs would be impacted by this case, so private nursing homes would not change. But several other federal programs rely on lawsuits under the spending clause to enforce rights. And Sanders expects the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to agree with limiting those lawsuits.

"The conventional wisdom is that as the Supreme Court has gotten more conservative, that goes hand in hand with justices being more cautious about opening the courthouse doors to plaintiffs' claims," Sanders said. 

Credit: Susie Talevski

Talevski's family never thought this lawsuit would go to the Supreme Court. His daughter, Susie, told 13News she just wanted justice for her father, and to protect other nursing home patients in Indiana.

"He was a good man — a helper, whether that was family or friends at church. My dad did not deserve to be treated worse than a dog," Suzana said. "Absolutely nobody does, in fact. And I was responsible for him, and I was not going to let them abuse him in that way."

How this case got to the Supreme Court is under scrutiny. Indiana's public access counselor said in a Sept. 30 opinion, leadership violated the state's Open Door Law. Writing in the opinion, "it is the opinion of this office that the Open Door Law requires a governing body to take final action at a public meeting authorizing the agency to petition the Supreme Court of the United States."

Health & Hospital Corporation of Marion County did not respond to 13News' requests for comment.

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