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Second Circuit Reversed Dismissal of Former BOP Prisoner’s FTCA Claim Against Dentist

by David M. Reutter

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a former federal prisoner’s complaint brought pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The court concluded that a state rule that requires an affidavit of merit to state a claim for medical negligence does not apply in federal proceedings.

The court’s August 25, 2021 opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Royce Corley. Acting pro se, Corley filed an FTCA complaint in federal court against a dentist and dental hygienist at FCI Danbury in Connecticut.

Corley alleged that on November 14, 2016, a dental hygienist damaged a filling in his wisdom tooth and broke a cap on one of his front teeth during a cleaning. A few weeks later, the cap on the front tooth fell off, exposing his chipped front tooth. Over the next few months, the dentist refused to replace the cap or repair the filling. The dentist attempted to extract the wisdom tooth on March 13, 2017, “in a painful procedure that caused the tooth to break into several pieces that were not entirely removed during the procedure.” The tooth remained in pieces, causing severe pain, bleeding, and infection along with bad breath and difficulty sleeping and eating.

In May 2018, Corley filed suit in a New York federal court. That court transferred the action to Connecticut because that’s where the incident occurred and it was where the defendants resided. After Corley filed an amended complaint naming the United States as a defendant as required by the FTCA, the government moved to dismiss because Corley failed to comply with Section 52-190a(a) of the Connecticut General Statutes.

That statute requires an affidavit from a similar health care provider be attached to the complaint with the service of process of a medical negligence claim. The affidavit must detail the basis for the formation of the opinion that medical negligence occurred.

The district court granted the government’s motion due to Corley’s failure to attach the affidavit as required by Section 52-190a(a). Corley timely appealed.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the transfer of the case from New York to Connecticut. It, however, found the district court erred in applying Section 52-190a(a) instead of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (F.R.Civ.P.). The parties did not dispute that those rules apply in an FTCA lawsuit or that state law is the “source of substantive liability under the FTCA.”

The Court said that “state law will apply only if it is substantive, rather than procedural.” It noted that procedural law is “the judicial process for enforcing rights and duties recognized by substantive law,” where substantive law is “the law that governs the rights and obligations of individuals within a given jurisdiction.”

It concluded that Section 52-190a(a) was procedural. That law neither modifies the “standard of liability nor elucidates the types of evidence required to establish the standard, its breach, or causality.” Instead, it is a pleading rule that places a roadblock in the path of plaintiffs advancing a particular category of claim. Section 52-190a(a) sets a heightened pleading that is in direct contradiction with F.R.Civ.P. 8, which requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing the pleader is entitled to relief,” the Second Circuit found. It also conflicts with F.R.Civ.P. 4, which governs the service of process in federal court, by mandating documents with that service that are “not typically required in federal court.”

“[B]y requiring tort cases against it to be brought in federal court, the United States foregoes any tactical advantages a defendant might have under the procedural rules applied in state court.” Error was found in the dismissal of Corley’s complaint.

The district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. Corley reprented himself pro se in the district and appellate courts. See: Corley v. United States, 11 F.4th 79 (2d Cir. 2021).

Author’s note: Absent expert testimony setting forth the appropriate standard of care in a case such as this, it is very difficult to win medical claims or get past summary judgement. 

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Related legal case

Corley v. United States