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Winters v. Lavine

decided: January 16, 1978.

MIRIAM WINTERS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ABE LAVINE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES; JAMES R. DUMPSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal by plaintiff from a judgment order of a three-judge United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Hays, United States Circuit Judge, and Bartels and Dooling, United States District Judges, abstaining as to part of the relief plaintiff sought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and denying on the ground of res judicata the remainder of the relief plaintiff sought.

Waterman and Timbers, Circuit Judges, and Mehrtens, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Waterman

WATERMAN, Circuit Judge:

This civil rights case brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 emanates from the State of New York's allegedly wrongful and unconstitutional denial of plaintiff-appellant Miriam Winters' requests that the state, through its Medicaid program, New York Social Services Law §§ 363-69 (hereinafter "N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law"), pay for what Winters asserts was "medical" treatment administered by Christian Science "practitioners" and "nurses." The case comes before us now on an appeal from a judgment order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, entered by United States Circuit Judge Hays and United States District Judges Bartels and Dooling sitting as a three-judge district court convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 2284,*fn1 which denied some of the legal and equitable relief sought by plaintiff on the ground that she was barred by the res judicata effect of a prior state court judgment from relitigating the propriety of the state's denial of her request for payment of the bill for services submitted to her by a Christian Science nurse.*fn2 Additionally, the three-judge court abstained from deciding whether the state had erroneously denied Winters' request that payment be made for treatment administered by a Christian Science "practitioner." As to this "practitioner claim," the district court retained jurisdiction to resolve the federal constitutional issue therein presented in the event a pending Article 78 proceeding which had been instituted by plaintiff in the New York State Supreme Court did not construe a section of the New York Medicaid statute, N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 365-a, in a manner that would entitle plaintiff to the particular payments she seeks to have the state make. Inasmuch as we believe the district court reached the correct result, we affirm.

Plaintiff-appellant, Miriam Winters, although not a formal church member, is an adherent of the doctrines of the First Church of Christ Scientist of Boston, Massachusetts ("Christian Science Church") and, as such, does not avail herself of the traditional medical services typically provided by physicians and nurses. Instead, whenever she becomes ill and is in need of medical assistance, she submits herself to the treatment and care administered by Christian Science "practitioners" and "nurses." Plaintiff claims that she was ill periodically from the middle of 1973 through 1974 and that, in accordance with her religious beliefs, she sought to alleviate her medical difficulties by obtaining the treatment and care offered by a Christian Science nurse and by Christian Science practitioners. Following the rendition of such services, appellant, who, by virtue of her status as, at first, a state welfare recipient and, later, as a recipient of Supplemental Security Income, was eligible for Medicaid benefits, submitted to the New York City Department of Social Services ("city department") the bills she had received from the Christian Science practitioners and from the nurse. In each instance appellant's request that the bill be paid under the state's Medicaid program was denied by the city welfare office.

Appellant presented her initial request for payment to the city department on November 12, 1973. After this request for payment of $78.66 for treatments administered by and supplies received from a Christian Science nurse had been rejected by that agency, Winters, as she was entitled to do under N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 366-a(4), appealed this determination to the New York State Department of Social Services. Although she had requested a "fair hearing," she did not appear at the hearing which was held on December 18, 1973.*fn3 In a written decision dated February 20, 1974 the state agency affirmed the city department's denial of Winters' request for payment for the services supposedly rendered by the Christian Science nurse on the ground that there was no provision in § 365-a(2) of the Social Services Law authorizing such payment.

Appellant then sought review of the state Department of Social Services's administrative action by way of an Article 78 proceeding*fn4 filed on May 28, 1974 in the New York State Supreme Court for the County of New York. There the respondent Commissioners moved to have the proceeding transferred to the Appellate Division, First Department, which motion was granted. In the Appellate Division Winters argued that under the Medicaid statute she was entitled to payment for the services provided by the Christian Science nurse, and that, if the New York statutes did not, in fact, make such provision, then those statutes operated in an unconstitutional manner so as to deprive Winters of her first amendment right to the free exercise of religion. On October 16, 1975, the Appellate Division affirmed the state Department of Social Services's decision denying Winters' request for payment of the services of the Christian Science nurse and stated the rationale for its decision to be the following:

The request for the payment of the cost of Christian Science nursing care was properly denied. Aside from the fact that a Christian Science nurse is not classified as a registered nurse (Education Law § 6901 et seq.), petitioner has not demonstrated that she is entitled to payments pursuant to Social Services Law § 365-a, since there is insufficient [evidence] in the record to indicate either the nature of her illness or the treatment which she received.

Winters v. Commissioner of New York State Dep't of Social Services, 49 A.D.2d 843, 844, 373 N.Y.S.2d 604, 605 (1st Dep't 1975), appeal dismissed, 39 N.Y.2d 832, 385 N.Y.S.2d 1029, appeal dismissed and cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1011, 50 L. Ed. 2d 620, 97 S. Ct. 634 (1976).

From this adverse decision in the Appellate Division, Winters took an appeal to the New York Court of Appeals. She was unsuccessful there also, the Court of Appeals dismissing her appeal sua sponte "upon the ground that no substantial constitutional question [was] directly involved." Undeterred by this summary dismissal, Winters next took an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also disposed of her case summarily, stating: "Appeal from App.Div., Sup.Ct.N.Y., 1st Jud. Dept., dismissed for want of jurisdiction. Treating the papers whereon the appeal was taken as a petition for writ of certiorari, certiorari denied." Winters v. Commissioner, New York State Dep't of Social Services, 429 U.S. 1011, 50 L. Ed. 2d 620, 97 S. Ct. 634 (1976).

Appellant made three other requests to the city Department of Social Services for payment under the Medicaid program. Each of these requests sought payment for additional treatments administered by Christian Science practitioners.

The first request for payment of a bill submitted to Winters by a Christian Science practitioner was made on December 21, 1973. When the city Department of Social Services denied this request, Winters appealed to the state Department of Social Services and, after a "fair hearing," the state agency determined that Winters was "entitled to be reimburse[d] for the treatment so billed". Pursuant to this determination, Winters' bill in the amount of $70.00 was paid.*fn5

The second demand for payment for services provided by a Christian Science practitioner was made on March 1, 1974. Shortly thereafter, this request was rejected by the city Department of Social Services and Winters again pursued an appeal to the state Department of Social Services. This time, however, in a decision seemingly incompatible with its recent ruling on the same subject, the state agency ruled that under the state Medicaid program, N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 365-a, the agency was not authorized to pay for services rendered by a Christian Science practitioner and it therefore refused to pay the bill submitted to Winters by the practitioner. As when her request for payment for the services of a Christian Science nurse had been denied by the state agency, Winters brought an Article 78 proceeding in the New York State Supreme Court to contest the determination of the state Department of Social Services. This case (the "practitioner case") is still pending in the New York State Supreme Court despite an attempt by the state Department of Social Services to have the case dismissed.

Winters submitted a third, and final, request for payment for treatments rendered by a Christian Science practitioner. No administrative action has been taken on this request.

Following the submission of this final request for payment, on October 8, 1974 Winters commenced the federal civil rights action from which the appeal presently before us arose. She named as defendants Abe Lavine and James R. Dumpson, both of whom were sued individually and also in their respective official capacities as the commissioners of the state and city Departments of Social Services. Seeking to prosecute the lawsuit as a class action, Winters claimed to represent the interests of all other persons similarly situated, described more specifically in the complaint as being "those persons who follow the practices and beliefs of the Christian Science Religion, which beliefs require them to use the Services of Christian Science practitioners rather than conventional 'medical' practitioners when they are ill and who would be entitled to medical assistance benefits for such services but for the application of the illegal statute challenged by this law suit." Winters set forth three claims in her complaint, the principal one being that the New York Medicaid statute, if construed so as to exclude Christian Science treatment from coverage under the medical assistance program, was unconstitutional because it denied plaintiff and others similarly situated their first and fourteenth amendment rights to the free exercise of religion. The complaint also alleged violations of the federal and state regulations, 45 C.F.R. § 249.11 and 18 N.Y.C.R.R. § 360.29, respectively, which establish the right of Medicaid recipients to obtain medical services from any "qualified" provider of such services. For relief, Winters sought, inter alia, injunctions prohibiting the defendants from refusing to pay benefits for Christian Science treatment provided to eligible Medicaid recipients, damages in the amount of $431.66 for the Christian Science treatments already administered to Winters, and for which the state has not as yet paid (but see note 5 supra), and punitive damages of $50,000.00.

The request for class certification was denied by Judge Bartels on the ground that Winters was not a suitable class representative because, as appeared from an affidavit of a Christian Science Church official which was submitted on behalf of the Church as an amicus curiae in the case, Winters' efforts to procure payment from public funds for the Christian Science treatments were actually contrary to Church policies. Judge Bartels did, however, determine the constitutional issue to be substantial enough to require the convening of a three-judge court. Oral argument was heard by the court on November 25, 1975 and, on July 21, 1976, the court issued its decision in the case.

All three judges agreed that Winters' claim seeking to have the state pay for the services of the Christian Science nurse was barred by res judicata. There was a difference of opinion among the panel members, however, on what disposition should be made of the claim seeking Medicaid payment for the services of the Christian Science practitioner. Judge Bartels, writing for himself and Judge Hays, decided that under the circumstances the court should abstain from deciding the constitutional issue raised by the practitioner claim until the state courts, in the lawsuit then and now still pending in the New York State Supreme Court, had decided whether the New York Medicaid statutes should be interpreted so as to render compensable the services of a Christian Science practitioner. Judge Dooling disagreed, stating that ...


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