First Circuit Unable To Release Unsuspecting Victim Snared In Jurisdictional Trap


I would put the odds of a first-year law student getting through the first week of law school without hearing the phrase “trap for the unwary” at something south of 0%. Today’s post involves a decision highlighting a statute of limitations trap in the context of one of the most tragic factual situations imaginable.

Sanchez v. United States, No. 13-1333, decided by the First Circuit earlier today, was a medical malpractice action brought by a widower as the executor of his wife’s estate. Dr. Rafaela Sanchez died of post-partum bleeding two days after delivering the couple’s third child by caesarean section at North Shore Medical Center-Salem Hospital. The doctors treating Dr. Sanchez worked for Lynn Community Health Center.

Mr. Sanchez filed suit against the doctors in Massachusetts state court 35 ½ months after his wife’s death–within Massachusetts’ three-year statute of limitations. However, unbeknownst to Mr. Sanchez and his counsel, the doctors were deemed to be federal employees under the Federally Supported Health Centers Assistance Act of 1992 by virtue of the manner in which their employer received federal funds. As Judge Kayatta notes in the decision, the doctors’ status as federal employees was not readily apparent absent an investigation, which was not undertaken by counsel.

Since the doctors were deemed to be federal employees, the applicable statute of limitations was not Massachusetts’ three-year statute, but the two-year statute provided by the Federal Tort Claims Act. Because the deadlines set forth in the Tort Claims Act are jurisdictional, the First Circuit, bound by prior precedent directly on point, affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the claim as time-barred.

In addition to reminding us that even an appellate decision that has clearly been decided correctly can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth, Sanchez teaches us two important lessons.  First, medical facilities that by all outward indications appear to be non-governmental may nevertheless have persons deemed to be federal employees working in them. Second, and following directly from the first, it behooves a plaintiff’s attorney to undertake a thorough investigation early in the representation to determine whether the doctor defendants may be deemed federal employees, lest the malpractice claim that makes its way to trial be one for legal malpractice.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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