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AZ Medical Copayment Not Retroactive

A federal district court in Arizona held that Ariz. Rev. Stat. (ARS) § 31201.01, which includes a socalled medical copayment provision, cannot be applied to state prisoners who are incarcerated for offenses committed prior tothe statute's effective date. In an unpublished ruling the state was permanently enjoined from applying the law to the prisoner/plaintiff.

In 1990, Gerald Souch was committed to the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC). From the outset, he was provided the usual cursory medical treatment of Tylenol, Ibuprofen, aspirin, etc., for a back injury he sustained in a motor vehicle accident prior to his incarceration. At some point, the ADOC began regularly charging him $3.00 medical copayments for treatment.

In May 1997, Souch filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights action against several ADOC doctors, alleging the treatment he was receiving was constitutionally deficient. He further contended that he was "wrongfully charged fees for medical services."

Two years later, the district court entered summary judgment for the defendants on Souch's Eighth Amendment claim. However, the court afforded the defendants an opportunity to renew their motion on the medical copayment issue, and the parties briefed the matter anew.

The defendants argued that the $3.00 medical copayments charged against Souch "were reasonable and proper pursuant to ARS § 31201.01.6." Souch countered that his offense date placed him outside the law's purview, and as a result, the charges were improper. In other words, the retroactive application of the statute violated due process.

As a threshold matter, the district court rejected Souch's claim to the extent that he sought $50.00 per day in damages, on the theory that the claim was barred by the Eleventh Amendment. According to the court, Souch's exclusive remedy in this respect was in Arizona state court.

In analyzing the statute, the court determined that § 31201.01.6., the section governing medical copayments, was not enacted until April 1994. The court also found a similar situation had been addressed by a state court in Zuther v. State , 303 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 34 (Aug. 31, 1999), that was material.

In Zuther, an Arizona appellate court construed the application of ARS § 31228, as it was being applied to a prisoner sentenced in 1992. At the time, § 31228 required the ADOC to furnish every prisoner paroled or discharged with "not less than fifty dollars in cash," as "gate money." in 1993, however, ARS § 31237 (a) was enacted, which shifted the funding source for gate money to prisoners' accrued wage accounts.

The Zuther court noted that unless they are merely procedural, statutes are not generally applied retroactively. Since § 31237 affected. soner property rights, i.e. wages, the court determined that the law was substantive. It concluded that the 1993 changes to §§ 31237 and 31228 "cannot have retroactive effect" and can only be applied "to those prisoners who commit a felony after January 1, 1994."

In Souch`s case, the district court found that under the law in effect at the time he was sentenced, the ADQC provided prisoners with costfree medical care. The court also found, "[s]imilar to Zuther," that § 31201.01.6 "is not merely procedural," as it too affects property rights. "For the same reasons articulate ... in Zuther," the court concluded that § 31201.01 "cannot have retroactive effect," and can only be applied "to persons who commit a felony after its enactment."

Not surprisingly, the defendants filed a motion, pursuant to Ped.R.Civ.P. 59 (a) and (e), to alter or amend the judgment entered on Dec. 15, 1999, and pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. C2 (b) and (c), for a stay. The defendants argued that the court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Souch's state law claim, and that the district court misapplied the law.

After thoroughly reviewing the statute's legislative history, the court determined "that the Arizona Legislature intended the 1994 and subsequent medical fee acts to have prospective application based upon the date of one's offense." Even if this were not the case, the court concluded that because § 31201.01.6 affects prisoner property rights and is therefore substantive, it "should have only prospective application."

Although the government pleaded that the judgment would "plunge the ADOC into an administrative morass," the court found the argument "not persuasive in the least." The court reasoned that until Zuther was no longer good law, the defendants would not likely prevail on the merits, and the judgment should not be stayed. For the time being, § 31201.016 remains unconstitutional as applied to Souch , and those similarly situated ADOC prisoners who assert a claim. This is an unpublished opinions. See: Souch v .Howard, No. CIV 971157 PRH, (D. Ariz. Mar. 14, 2000)

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Related legal case

Souch v. Howard