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Supreme Court rules public health officials immune from constitutional claims

The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously in Hui v. Castaneda [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that Public Health Service (PHS) officers or employees are immune from Bivens actions for harms arising out of constitutional violations committed while acting within the scope of their office or employment. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), federal employees are not protected from constitutional tort claims, and the Supreme Court has recognized a cause of action for constitutional claims in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics [opinion text]. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that § 233(a) of the Emergency Health Personnel Act [text] does not preclude a Bivens action. Reversing the decision below, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote:

When federal employees are sued for damages for harms caused in the course of their employment, the FTCA generally authorizes substitution of the United States as the defendant. Section 233(a) makes the FTCA remedy against the United States "exclusive of any other civil action or proceeding" for any personal injury caused by a PHS officer or employee performing a medical or related function "while acting within the scope of his office or employment." Based on the plain language of § 233(a), we conclude that PHS officers and employees are not personally subject to Bivens actions for harms arising out of such conduct.
The case was remanded to the lower court.

The case was brought by the estate of Francisco Castaneda. Castaneda was detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Francisco in 2006. He was suffering from a lesion on his penis, which he brought to the attention of ICE medical personnel, but they did not order a biopsy. Castaneda subsequently died of penile cancer.

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