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Bortolotti v. Gracepoint

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

August 5, 2019

ERIKA BORTOLOTTI, Plaintiff,
v.
GRACEPOINT, ET AL., Defendants.

          ORDER

          SUSAN C. BUCKLEW United States District Judge.

         This cause comes before the Court on five motions: (1) St. Joseph's Hospital's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 8), which Plaintiff opposes (Doc. No. 18); (2) Agency for Community Treatment Services, Inc.'s Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 12), which Plaintiff opposes (Doc. No. 20); (3) Gracepoint's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 16), which Plaintiff opposes (Doc. No. 22); (4) Pamela Troutman's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 31), which Plaintiff opposes (Doc. No. 39); and (5) St. Joseph's Hospital's Motion for Sanctions (Doc. No. 23), which Plaintiff opposes (Doc. No. 33).

         I. Standard of Review for Motions to Dismiss

         In deciding a motion to dismiss, the district court is required to view the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Murphy v. Federal Deposit Ins. Corp., 208 F.3d 959, 962 (11th Cir. 2000)(citing Kirby v. Siegelman, 195 F.3d 1285, 1289 (11th Cir. 1999)). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a claimant to set out in detail the facts upon which she bases her claim. Instead, Rule 8(a)(2) requires a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)(citation omitted). As such, a plaintiff is required to allege “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (citation omitted). While the Court must assume that all of the allegations in the complaint are true, dismissal is appropriate if the allegations do not “raise [the plaintiff's] right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. (citation omitted). The standard on a 12(b)(6) motion is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail in his or her theories, but whether the allegations are sufficient to allow the plaintiff to conduct discovery in an attempt to prove the allegations. See Jackam v. Hospital Corp. of Am. Mideast, Ltd., 800 F.2d 1577, 1579 (11th Cir. 1986).

         II. Background

         Plaintiff Erika Bortolotti alleges the following in her complaint (Doc. No. 1): On Friday, May 5, 2017, Plaintiff went to a bar with a friend and had drinks to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. After a few hours, Plaintiff's friend became concerned about Plaintiff, and Plaintiff was taken to Defendant St. Joseph's Hospital, Inc. (“St. Joseph's”). According to Plaintiff, St. Joseph's involuntarily committed her under the Hal S. Marchman Alcohol and Other Drug Services Act, Florida Statutes § 397.301 et seq. (“Marchman Act”), despite the fact that she did not qualify for commitment under the Marchman Act.[1]

         Plaintiff was transferred from St. Joseph's to a facility run by Defendant Agency for Community Treatment Services, Inc. (“ACTS”). ACTS physicians never evaluated Plaintiff to determine whether she met the Marchman Act criteria. While there, Plaintiff contends that she was denied communication with her attorney, was illegally drugged, and was imprisoned against her will.

         Thereafter, Plaintiff was transferred to Defendant Gracepoint, which is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. Gracepoint never evaluated Plaintiff to determine whether she met the Marchman Act criteria. While there, Plaintiff contends that she was denied communication with her attorney, was illegally drugged with Valium, and was imprisoned against her will.

         At some point on Sunday, Plaintiff's attorney contacted Gracepoint to insist that Plaintiff be released. Gracepoint called its director, Defendant Pamela Troutman, and Troutman refused to speak to Plaintiff's attorney or to release Plaintiff. Again, on Monday at 7:00 p.m., Plaintiff's attorney returned to Gracepoint, and Troutman still refused to let Plaintiff's attorney speak with Plaintiff. Plaintiff was not released until she had been held a full 72 hours.

         On May 3, 2019, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against Defendants, in which she asserts 14 claims. She asserts separate § 1983 claims, false imprisonment claims, and assault and battery claims against Troutman, St. Joseph's, ACTS, and Gracepoint. She also asserts a civil conspiracy claim against Defendants, alleging that they conspired to violate her constitutional rights and to falsely imprison her. Finally, she challenges the constitutionality of the Marchman Act. In response, each of the defendants has filed a motion to dismiss.

         III. St. Joseph's Motions

         St. Joseph has filed a motion to dismiss all of the claims asserted against it, as well as a motion for sanctions. As explained below, the motion to dismiss is granted in part, and the motion for sanctions is denied.

         A. Section 1983

         Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim against St. Joseph's. She alleges that St. Joseph's, acting under color of state law, deprived her of her constitutional right to liberty by involuntarily committing her under the Marchman Act despite the fact that she did not meet the criteria for commitment.

         In order to state a claim under § 1983, Plaintiff must allege two things: (1) conduct of a person or entity acting under color of state law; and (2) that such conduct resulted in a deprivation of her rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. See Harvey v. Harvey, 949 F.2d 1127, 1130 (11th Cir. 1992). In this case, Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim against St. Joseph's, a private hospital, and St. Joseph's seeks dismissal on that basis. Specifically, St. Joseph's argues that Plaintiff fails to state a § 1983 claim, because it did not act under color of state law.

         Plaintiff responds that private parties are sometimes deemed to have acted under color of state law for § 1983 purposes. The Eleventh Circuit recognizes three tests to aid courts in determining whether a private actor can be deemed a state actor subject to liability under § 1983. The three tests are: (1) the public function test; (2) the state compulsion test; and (3) the nexus/joint action test. Id. Accordingly, the Court will apply each test in order to determine whether Plaintiff can assert a § 1983 claim against St. Joseph's.

         1. Public Function Test

         The first test the Court considers is the public function test. This test permits courts to find state action on the part of a private party where that party exercises powers that are “‘traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the State.'” National Broadcasting Co. Inc. v. Comm. Workers of America, AFL-CIO, 860 F.2d 1022, 1026 (11th Cir. 1988) (quoting Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U.S. 345, 352 (1974)). A court may not find state action, however, where the powers of a private party are merely “co-extensive” with those of the state. Harvey, 949 F.2d at 1131.

         In Harvey, one of the issues before the court was whether the involuntary commitment of the plaintiff-appellant under the state's mental health statute by a private hospital was state action under the public function test. See id. In finding that the private hospital was not a state actor under the public function test, the court stated the following:

Appellant finally argues that the commitment process is a traditional public function, implying that state law guiding private participation in this function effectively transforms the private participant into a state actor. But this argument does not take the public function analysis far enough. That the private party has powers co-extensive with the state is irrelevant; the public function test shows state action only when private actors are given powers (or perform functions) that are “traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the State.” Few activities are “exclusively reserved to the states.” We are unwilling to categorize involuntary commitment in Georgia as a function so reserved to the state that action under the commitment statute transforms a private actor into a state actor.

Id. (internal citations and footnotes omitted).

         Thus, while the court in Harvey considered commitment to be a public function - it did not consider the involuntary commitment of mentally ill patients to be a function so reserved to the state as to render the private hospital a state actor for the plaintiff's § 1983 claim. See id.; see also Rockwell v. Cape Cod Hospital, 26 F.3d 254, 259 (1st Cir. 1994) (finding that the history of involuntary treatment related to mental illness was almost exclusively private and “by no means [was it] the exclusive prerogative of the State”). Courts typically find this requisite exclusivity in situations where the state has expressly delegated its responsibilities to a private actor. See, e.g., West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 56-57 (1988) (holding that a physician to whom the state had delegated its constitutional duty to provide adequate medical treatment to prisoners had acted under color of state law).

         Plaintiff argues that the Marchman Act by its own text reflects that it meets the public function test. By shifting the practice of holding substance abuse impaired people in jail cells from the criminal justice system to hospitals and treatment facilities, Plaintiff argues that St. Joseph's actions with respect to her involuntary commitment should be considered state action for § 1983 purposes under the public function test. However, Plaintiff cites no specific authority to support a finding that such commitment has been the exclusive function of the State of Florida. See Harvey, 949 F.2d at 1131. Here, the Marchman Act merely provides for the civil commitment of substance abusers as an alternative to criminal imprisonment - it does not transfer or delegate a legal duty of care that would render St. Joseph's a state actor within the meaning of § 1983. See West, 487 U.S. at 56. Given the lack of allegations to show that St. Joseph's performed an exclusively public function by arranging for and providing emergency substance abuse assessment and stabilization services, St. Joseph's cannot be considered a state actor under the public function test.

         2. State Compulsion Test

         The next test for the Court to consider is the state compulsion test. This test limits state action to instances in which the state “has coerced or at least significantly encouraged” the conduct at issue. National Broadcasting, 860 F.2d at 1026. State compulsion requires more than a showing of approval or acquiescence by the state. See id. at 1028 (citing Blum v. Yaretsky, 457 U.S. 991, 1004 (1982)).

         The court in Harvey held that Georgia's mental health-based commitment statute was not sufficiently coercive to transform the defendant, a private mental hospital, into a state actor for purposes of the plaintiff's § 1983 claim. 949 F.2d at 1130, 1132. Rather, the court in Harvey likened the statute to a “licensing provision, ” enabling hospitals to receive mentally ill patients rather than compelling or encouraging them to do so. Id. Likewise, the court in Rockwell echoed this reasoning, ruling that a state law permitting physicians to hospitalize potentially dangerous mentally ill individuals did not rise to the level of coercion or encouragement required to be considered state compulsion. See Rockwell, 26 F.3d at 257 n.2, 258.

         Plaintiff argues St. Joseph's conduct satisfies the state compulsion test on the grounds that St. Joseph's was required to treat Plaintiff under Florida and Federal law.[2] However, the Court's focus for the state compulsion test in this case is on the specific language of the Marchman Act. See Harvey, 949 F.2d at 1131. Like the commitment statute at issue in Harvey, the Marchman Act does not require hospitals or physicians to pursue a specific course of action when they encounter a substance impaired patient. Rather, the Marchman Act sets forth guidelines and procedures under which a physician may initiate a patient's involuntary civil commitment. See Fla. Stat. § 397.6791; Fla. Stat. § 397.679. The Marchman Act is, at its core, permissive - not mandatory. As such, it does not rise to the level of encouragement or coercion by the state in order to transform St. Joseph's conduct into state action.

         3. Nexus/Joint Action Test

         Finally, the Court considers the nexus/joint action test. Under this test, private conduct falls under color of state law where the state “has ‘so far insinuated itself into a position of interdependence with the [private party] that it was a joint participant in the enterprise.'” Harvey, 949 F.2d at 1131 (quoting National Broadcast, 860 F.2d at 1026). The Supreme Court has held that state regulation or the receipt of state funding is insufficient to transform a private party into a state actor. See Blum, 457 U.S. at 1004, 1011 (holding that a nursing home was not a state actor despite extensive government regulation and state funding). Rather, this test requires courts to look at the degree of the state's involvement in the private entity's management and control. See, e.g., Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Ass'n, 531 U.S. 288, 297-99 (2001) (treating private athletic association as a state actor due to the “pervasive entwinement” of state school officials in the association's structure and operations).

         Plaintiff argues that the State of Florida so far insinuated itself into a position of interdependence by virtue of the Marchman Act as to render St. Joseph's a state actor under the nexus/joint action test. According to Plaintiff, the content of the Marchman Act itself establishes the pervasive entwinement required for the Court to find joint action. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that joint action is created by the Marchman Act, which incorporates St. Joseph's into a broader, government-created service provider network and allows St. Joseph's to seize Plaintiff under its authority. Plaintiff also contends that the state's extensive regulation of private health care facilities is sufficient to make the state a joint participant in St. Joseph's alleged improper conduct.

         A finding of joint action, however, requires the Court to consider the degree of the state's direct involvement in St. Joseph's management and control. Thus, the relevant question here is not whether St. Joseph's exercised its powers co-extensively with the state or even by virtue of state authority, but rather whether ...


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