Section 1983 and federal regulations

Section 1983

Section 1983 actions

We previously wrote here about Section 1983 claims. In summary, Section 1983 is a federal statute that allows a person to sue for violations of certain federal rights.

In this post, we write about the application of Section 1983 to federal regulations.

What does Section 1983 state?

This law allows a person to sue for “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” of the United States.

Does the term “laws” extend to federal regulations adopted by federal agencies?

Until this week, that was an unanswered question in the Fifth Circuit. In Thurman v. Medical Management Transportation, Inc., decided December 15, 2020, the Fifth Circuit said “no”.

Facts of Thurman

Leonard Thurman was a Medicaid recipient. He asked Medical Transportation Management, Inc. (“MTM”) to drive him to a doctor’s appointment.

According to Thurman, MTM failed to pick him up. He sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the failure to pick him up violated his right to non-emergency medical transportation under various federal regulatory and statutory Medicaid provisions.

The district court dismissed Thurman’s suit, and he appealed.

The Fifth Circuit affirms

Looking at Thurman’s claim that he had certain federal statutory rights to non-emergency transportation, the Fifth Circuit held that none of the statutes cited by Thurman gave him such a right.

So, the Court turned to the federal regulations relied upon by Thurman. The specific issue was whether an administrative regulation may establish a federal right enforceable under Section 1983.

The Court noted that although such was an “open question” in the Fifth Circuit, “the overwhelming majority of circuits that have decided the issue have held that such claims may not be brought — consistent with the principle that federal rights are created by Congress, not agencies of the Executive Branch.”

Or, as the United States Supreme Court put it: “Agencies may play the sorcerer’s apprentice but not the sorcerer himself.”

Based on the foregoing, the Fifth Circuit held that federal regulations do not create rights enforceable under Section 1983.

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