PHILADELPHIA – A federal appeals court says a woman’s claims of improper treatment at a veterans medical facility will be remanded to the U.S. District Court for further proceedings.

On April 24, Third Circuit judges Patty Shwartz, Robert E. Cowen and Julio M. Fuentes ruled in a per curiam fashion to partially affirm and partially vacate a decision from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in this matter, besides remanding claims plaintiff Blanche Brown made against the U.S. Government to their court of origin.

In April 2015, Brown filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court against six health care providers who worked at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center (CVAMC) in Pennsylvania. Some months later, Brown filed a second complaint in the District Court, this time against the United States of America. The two complaints, docketed in separate actions, both concerned treatment that Brown received at CVAMC beginning in 2011. The complaint against the government was also connected to a 2013 disorderly conduct citation that was issued to her by a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) police officer, in regards to security and law enforcement at VA facilities.

The District Court consolidated the two cases, and the defendants filed motions to dismiss the claims against them. On April 6, 2016, the District Court granted those motions and closed the case. In its opinions, the District Court explained Brown could not proceed with her claims against the individual defendants because under federal law, a claim brought against the United States pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) was the exclusive remedy for the allegations concerning her treatment at CVAMC.

The District Court also determined Brown’s treatment-related FTCA claim was barred by the statute of limitations, and as for the FTCA claims stemming from the disorderly conduct citation, the District Court concluded that those claims failed on the merits. Brown filed a motion for the District Court to reconsider its dismissal, but that motion was denied – leading Brown to bring the instant appeal, challenging the District Court’s dismissal order.

With respect to Brown’s claims against the individual defendants, the Third Circuit said it concurred with the District Court’s conclusion that said claims were barred, and that Brown’s exclusive remedy was limited to a claim versus the government under the FTCA.

“We now turn to the claims against the government, and we begin with Brown’s allegations regarding the disorderly conduct citation. For substantially the reasons provided by the District Court, we agree with the District Court’s dismissal of Brown’s claim that the issuance of the disorderly conduct citation amounted to an abuse of process. We also see no reason to disturb the District Court’s dismissal of Brown’s claim that she was maliciously prosecuted for the alleged disorderly conduct offense,” the Third Circuit said.

The appeals court stated in order to prove malicious prosecution, “a defendant must have instituted proceedings against the plaintiff 1) without probable cause, 2) with malice, and 3) the proceedings must have terminated in favor of the plaintiff.”

“We need not examine the first two factors of this test because Brown cannot satisfy the third factor. Although it appears that the United States Magistrate Judge who presided over Brown’s disorderly conduct case found her not guilty of that charge, the Magistrate Judge nevertheless (a) barred Brown from having any further contact with two CVAMC providers, and (b) ordered CVAMC personnel to escort her whenever she was at that facility. In light of these significant restrictions placed on Brown, we cannot conclude, for purposes of her malicious prosecution claim, that her criminal case was terminated in her favor,” the Third Circuit said.

As it related to Brown’s treatment-related claims against the government, the federal appeals court said, “The better course is to vacate the District Court’s dismissal of Brown’s treatment-related allegations against the government and remand so that she can amend those allegations to more clearly identify the specific claims that she is trying to raise.”

“Once that amendment is filed, the District Court may determine whether any of the treatment-related claims raised therein are timely. We do not weigh in on the timeliness question at this time; nor do we opine on whether Brown’s treatment-related allegations might be subject to dismissal for lack of exhaustion, or for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6),” the Third Circuit said.

“We have considered Brown’s remaining arguments and conclude that none warrants further relief here. Accordingly, we will affirm the District Court’s April 6, 2016 order in part, vacate it in part, and remand with instructions to allow Brown to amend her treatment-related allegations against the government. Although Brown appears to allege that the presiding District Judge has been biased against her, we see no evidence of bias, and we see no need to have this matter reassigned to another district judge on remand,” the Third Circuit stated.

The defendants are represented by Scott Webster Reid of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in Philadelphia.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 16-2604

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania cases 2:15-cv-01593 & 2:15-cv-05178

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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