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Gremminger v. United States

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 29, 2017

ASHLEY GREMMINGER, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          Freda L. Wolfson United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Ashley Gremminger (“Plaintiff”) filed this action under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) against Defendant United States of America and Monmouth Family Health Center[1](“MFHC”), (collectively, the “Government”), alleging that the treatment which she received as a patient at MFHC fell below the applicable standard of care. In lieu of an answer, the Government moves for dismissal arguing that it is completely immune from tort liability, because MFHC is organized exclusively for charitable purposes within the meaning of the New Jersey Charitable Immunity Act (“NJCIA”). Alternatively, the Government moves for partial summary judgment, contending that it is entitled to a $250, 000 cap on damages, since MFHC is organized exclusively for “hospital purposes” under the NJCIA. For the reasons set forth below, the Government's Motion to Dismiss based on complete immunity is DENIED; however, the Government's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, limiting damages to $250, 000, is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was a patient at MFHC during her pregnancy from July 31, 2009 through March 5, 2010 (the “applicable time period”). Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 1. MFHC, located in Long Branch, New Jersey, offers medical services at a discounted rate.[2] Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 17 (“MFHC uses a sliding discount policy to determine appropriate patient discounts on the basis of family size and ability to pay according to federal poverty guidelines.”).

         During the applicable time period, MFHC operated from three separate facilities in Long Branch, each of which offered different health and medical related services comprised of internal medicine, pediatric health care, podiatric health care, obstetrics, gynecology, and dental care. Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 10. In addition, MFHC provided its patients with social services, as well as financial and nutritional counseling. Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 10. To date, MFHC continues to operate from three separate facilities, in which the aforementioned health and medical services are provided, except for its dental practice, which has been relocated. Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 10.

         In the instant medical malpractice suit, Plaintiff alleges that the treatment she received from MFHC fell below the applicable standard of care, and resulted in the stillbirth of her child. Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 5. Plaintiff and Julio Cezar Rivas, the father of Plaintiff's child, initially filed a Complaint in New Jersey Superior Court, Monmouth County Vicinage, but the matter was subsequently removed to federal court on December 7, 2012, by named defendant MFHC and substituted defendant United States of America. Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 5.

         Thereafter, the Government filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based upon the plaintiffs' failure to exhaust their administrative remedies, as mandated by the FTCA. Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 7. On July 30, 2013, the motion to dismiss was granted by the district court, and the matter was remanded to the State Court. Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 8. In compliance with her duty to exhaust, Plaintiff alone subsequently filed an administrative claim with the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 9. That claim, however, was denied. Defs' Statement of Facts, ¶ 9. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed this instant lawsuit on June 6, 2014. Def.s' Statement of Facts, ¶ 9.

         Presently before the Court is the Government's Motion to Dismiss, or, in the alternative, Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.[3] The Motion to Dismiss is based on the Government's contention that MFHC is a non-profit corporation “organized exclusively for charitable purposes, ” thereby entitling the Government to absolute immunity from tort liability under N.J.S.A. § 2A: 53A-7(a). However, should the Court reject this argument, the Government argues alternatively that it is entitled to partial summary judgment, because MFHC was instead “organized exclusively for hospital purposes, ” under N.J.S.A. § 2A: 53A-8. In that regard, the Government contends that its tort liability is limited by the NJCIA's $250, 000 cap on damages. The motion is opposed by Plaintiff.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         The Government's Motion presents the Court with two questions: (a) whether MFHC is entitled to complete immunity pursuant to the NJCIA; and (b) whether MFHC is alternatively entitled to limited immunity in the form of a $250, 000 cap on damages pursuant to the NCJIA. In conducting these inquiries, the parties, as a threshold issue, dispute the standard upon which the Court should review the Government's assertion of complete immunity.[4]

         The Government contends that the assertion of charitable immunity under the NJCIA is directed to this Court's subject matter jurisdiction. See Brief in Support of Defendants' Motion (“Defs.' Supp. Brief”), at 3-7. In that regard, the Government maintains that the burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction lies with Plaintiff. Defs.' Supp. Brief, at 6. On the other hand, Plaintiff contends that the Government's assertion of immunity is an affirmative defense. Plaintiff's Brief in Opposition to Defendants' Motion (“Pl.'s Opp'n Brief”), at 7-9. Plaintiff argues, therefore, the burden of establishing complete immunity falls on the Government. Pl.'s Opp'n Brief, at 9. Plaintiff's position is not supported by the case law.

         A party, such as Plaintiff, that brings a claim under the FTCA must satisfy the threshold requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). Section 1346(b)(1) includes the following six criteria:

A claim must be made (1) against the United States, (2) for money damages, . . . (3) for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death (4) caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government (5) while acting within the scope of his office or employment, (6) under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.

CNA v. United States, 535 F.3d 132, 141 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal citations and quotations omitted). The Third Circuit has explicitly found that § 1346(b)(1)'s threshold requirements are jurisdictional, and that the failure to satisfy any one of them will preclude a district court from resolving a plaintiff's FTCA claim under the principles of sovereign immunity. CNA, 535 F.3d at 144 (internal citations omitted). In that respect, a district court's review must be in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), in evaluating “whether a plaintiff's claim has met [§ 1346(b)(1)'s] six conditions.” Id. at 145.

         Here, the Government's assertion of immunity derives from the NJCIA. That statute affords charitable hospitals complete immunity from tort claims. Thus, because the NJCIA is the “law of the place” where MFHC's conduct occurred, the Government's dispute centers on Plaintiff's obligation to satisfy the sixth criteria of § 1346(b)(1). Accordingly, in determining whether the Government is immune from liability pursuant to the NJCIA, the Court must apply the Rule 12(b)(1) standard, which is jurisdictional in nature.[5] In that connection, Plaintiff bears the burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction over her FTCA claim. However, the Government's alternative argument, wherein the Government maintains that it is entitled to a cap on damages, does not raise any jurisdictional issues since the cap does not absolve the Government of liability. Thus, the Court will apply the standard of Rule 56 to the cap on damages argument. Young, 152 F.Supp. at 343 (applying Rule 12(b)(1) in determining whether the Government was completely immune from tort liability, but applying Rule 56 in determining whether the NCJIA's $250, 000 cap was applicable); S.M., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 175692; Dupont, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81739.

         a. Rule 12(b)(1)

         A defendant may move to dismiss a claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Once a 12(b)(1) challenge is raised, the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. See McCann v. Newman Irrevocable Trust, 458 F.3d 281, 286 (3d Cir. 2006). A Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss is treated as either a “facial or factual challenge to the court's subject matter jurisdiction.” Gould Electronics, Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000). Under a facial attack, the movant challenges the legal sufficiency of the claim, and the court considers only “the allegations of the complaint and documents referenced therein and attached thereto in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Id. Under a factual attack, however, “the challenge is to the actual alleged jurisdictional facts.” Id. “Because at issue in a factual 12(b)(1) motion is the trial court's jurisdiction-its very power to hear the case-there is substantial authority that the trial court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case.” Mortensen v. First Federal Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977).

         b. Rule 56

         Rule 56(a) provides that a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Sulima v. Tobyhanna Army Depot, 602 F.3d 177, 184 (3d Cir. 2010) (“Summary judgment is appropriate if, viewing the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”). “An issue of material fact is ‘genuine' if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Zavala v. Wal Mart Stores Inc., 691 F.3d 527, 545 (3d Cir. 2012). The substantive law governing the dispute will determine which facts are material, and only disputes over those facts “that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         A party moving for summary judgment must “identify[]each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To carry its burden of production, the moving party must “show[] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Id. If the movant “fail[s] to show the absence of any disputed material fact . . ., the District Court err[s] in granting summary judgment.” Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 148 (1970). If the moving party has met its initial burden, then the nonmoving party must “set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.” Betts v. New Castle Youth Dev. Ctr., 621 F.3d 249, 252 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2)). “[W]hen determining whether the moving party has proven the absence of a genuine material issue of fact, the facts asserted by the nonmoving party, if supported by affidavits or other evidentiary material, must be regarded as true, and the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts . . . must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Aman v. Cort Furniture Rental Corp., 85 F.3d 1074, 1080-81 (3d Cir. 1996) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         II. The NCJIA

         The Government seeks to invoke the immunity provisions of the NJCIA, and, in doing so, the Government mounts a factual attack on the Court's jurisdiction. In enacting the NCJIA, the New Jersey state legislature sought to “protect against the diversion of charitable funds from the purpose for which they were donated, to encourage private philanthropic activity to ensure the continued provision of services that benefit the general welfare, and to relieve the government of the burden of providing those services.” S.M., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 175692, at *6-7 (citing Ryan v. Holy Trinity Evangelical Church, 815 A.2d 419, 425-26 (2003)). In achieving this goal, the NJCIA prevents a party from asserting a negligence claim against a non-profit corporation organized exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes. Specifically, the NJCIA provides, in pertinent part:

No nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes or its trustees, directors, officers, employees, agents, servants or volunteers shall, except as is hereinafter set forth, be liable to respond in damages to any person who shall suffer damage from the negligence of any agent or servant of such corporation, society or association, where such person is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such nonprofit corporation, society or association; provided, however, that such immunity from liability shall not extend to any person who shall suffer damage from the negligence of such corporation, society, or association or of its agents or servants where such person is one unconcerned in and unrelated to and outside of the benefactions of such corporation, society or association.

N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7(a). Simply stated, the NJCIA shields an entity from tort liability “when it (1) was formed as a nonprofit corporation, society, or association; (2) is organized exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes; and (3) was advancing those purposes ‘at the time of the injury to plaintiff who was then a beneficiary of the charitable works.'” S.M., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 175692, at *8 (quoting Bieker v. Cmty. House of Moorestown, 777 A.2d 37, 42 (2001)).

         “Although the overarching character of all three categories [of N.J.S.A 2A:53A-7(a)] is eleemosynary, they are actually quite distinct.” Ryan, 815 A.2d at 424-25. For instance, the “religious” and “educational” categories under the NJCIA “have a limited and commonly understood meaning.” Id. The “charitable” category, on the other hand, “is a more complex notion that defies precise definition.” Id. Therefore, whenever an entity asserts the charitable defense, “the court must conduct a factual analysis beyond the benevolent acts” of that entity. S.M., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 175692, at *9 (citing Parker v. St. Stephen's Urban Dev. Corp., 579 A.2d 360, 364 (App.Div. 1990)). Specifically, in conducting this analysis, courts “have looked to an organization's funding, charter, daily operations, relationships to other entities, and the extent to which an organization lessens a burden on the government.” Nazzaro v. United States, 304 F.Supp.2d 605, 611 (D.N.J. 2004).

         In addition, the NJCIA protects non-profit entities that are exclusively organized for “hospital purposes.” N.J.S.A. 2A: 53A-8. In that regard, the NJCIA limits their tort liability in the form of a $250, 000 cap on damages:

Notwithstanding the provisions of [N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7], any nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for hospital purposes shall be liable to respond in damages to such beneficiary who shall suffer damage from the negligence of such corporation, society or association or of its agents or servants to an amount not exceeding $250, 000, together with interest and costs of such suit[.]

N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8. Therefore, the plain language of N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 and -8 limits an entity's liability under the NJCIA where the entity: “[1] is formed as a nonprofit corporation . . ., [2] is organized exclusively for hospital purposes, [3] was promoting those objectives and purposes at the time the plaintiff was injured, and [4] the plaintiff was a beneficiary of the activities of the hospital.” Kuchera, 221 N.J. at 249 (internal citation omitted).

         “The most prominent distinction between nonprofit entities organized exclusively for charitable, religious, or educational purposes and nonprofits organized exclusively for hospital purposes is that the former are immune from liability while the latter are subject to liability for negligence, albeit with a cap on its damages.” Kuchera, 221 N.J at 247. Stated differently, “if a nonprofit is organized ‘exclusively for hospital purposes, ' then no absolute immunity can apply.” Young, 152 F.Supp.3d at 347. Accordingly, if the Court finds that MFHC “is organized exclusively for hospital purposes, then the jurisdictional inquiry is concluded, even without determining the charitable status of” MFHC. Id.

         On this motion, the parties primarily dispute two issues: (1) whether the Government may claim state law immunity under the NJCIA; and, in that connection, (2) whether MFHC has satisfied the third element of both N.J.S.A. § 2A:53A-7 and -8, [6] or, put differently, whether MFHC is organized for either a “hospital purpose” or a “charitable purpose” as defined by the NJCIA. In making this particular determination, the Court notes that the analysis ...


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