La. Appeals Court Reverses Ruling Against Abortion Provider, Says State Lacked Authority To Fine Clinics
December 12, 2013 — A Louisiana appeals court has thrown out fines levied against a New Orleans abortion provider, ruling that the state's health agency lacked the legal authority to impose the penalties, the Baton Rouge Advocate reports.
Background on Case
In 2010, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals issued Midtown Medical two separate $600 fines, saying the facility was out of compliance with "federal and/or state rules for abortion clinics." A DHH letter cited "deficient practices" regarding the facility's governance and anesthesia services. According to the letter, the deficiencies violated the Louisiana Administrative Code and "created a potential for harm by directly threatening [patients'] health, safety, rights or welfare."
Midtown officials denied the allegations and initially contested the fines through an informal dispute resolution process, arguing that DHH had overstepped its authority. Midtown lost that appeal, as well as a case decided by an administrative law judge in December 2011. Midtown then filed a lawsuit. In June 2012, state District Judge Wilson Fields also ruled in favor of DHH, prompting Midtown to take its case to the state appeals court.
The three-judge panel of the state's 1st Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the prior decisions and struck down the $1,200 in civil fines against the abortion provider.
According to the Advocate, the Louisiana Administrative Code, which DHH adopted in July 2000 and used to impose the fines on Midtown, does not list outpatient abortion facilities as covered entities.
Therefore, the judges said that "DHH lacked the authority to impose the fines at issue." In the opinion, Judge John Pettigrew wrote that "it is clear that an outpatient abortion facility does not fall within the scope of hospital or any other facility listed in the statute."
The court also required DHH to cover the cost of Midtown's appeal, which totaled about $2,600.
According to DHH spokeswoman Olivia Watkins, the agency's top officials plan to appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Watkins said, "The department has also filed a notice of intent to clarify regulations relevant to abortion clinics that abortion facilities shall be included in the facilities that may be sanctioned under the Louisiana Administrative Code."
Ellie Schilling, an attorney for Midtown Medical, noted that while the lawsuit is specific to that facility, "if DHH were not to amend its rules they could likely see a similar situation with other (abortion) facilities" (Shuler, Baton Rouge Advocate, 12/11).