“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties.
Anna Chronis underwent a painful and bruising pap smear at a University of Illinois health center. She filed an official complaint to get compensation for the $332 in expenses she said she incurred because of the injury. She didn’t have a lawyer to help her navigate what turned out to be a highly complicated administrative complaint system. When her case reached the Seventh Circuit, she had the misfortune of having Amy Coney Barrett on the panel. In July, Barrett wrote an opinion for a divided panel in Chronis v. United States dismissing Chronis’s suit for not seeking recompense at an administrative level the way a lawyer would have, rather than how an ordinary person unable to afford counsel would have.
After the injury, she tried multiple times to call the doctor, who never returned her calls. No other employees at the health center returned her calls, and they would not schedule a follow-up appointment. When she complained to them in writing, they refused to compensate her.
She then turned to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). She told them the doctor had committed malpractice, that her injury was costing her money, and that she wanted “restitution.” Chronis asked CMS to help her, giving them copies of all the relevant communications with the doctor and clinic, including her request to the clinic for $332. But the agency told her to contact Illinois state officials.
Not getting any help from CMS, Chronis finally sued the doctor and the medical facility for malpractice in state court. She still didn’t have a lawyer. She didn’t know that because the doctor and facility received federal funds, the federal government would step in, make itself the sole defendant, and move the case to federal court. Under a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), she could not go to court unless she had exhausted administrative remedies. In practice, this meant she had to have informed the defendant that she was seeking $332. And since (surprise!) the doctor and clinic turned out not to be the real defendants, telling them didn’t count. The federal government argued that her case should be dismissed.
Chronis had been unaware of any of these byzantine procedures when she filed her complaint with CMS. Her cover letter said she wanted restitution and asked the federal government to help her get it, unaware that the entity she was asking for help was actually the entity who she should be demanding the money from. Not knowing that CMS was her opponent, she didn’t put a demand for $332 in her cover letter to them. Instead, the specific amount was in the attachments that she had given to CMS to give them as much information about her case as possible.
Judge Barrett made Chronis pay for her lack of expertise. On behalf of the 2-1 panel majority, she wrote that Chronis had failed to give the required notice to the federal government that she was seeking damages. Barrett focused on the fact that her letter to CMS had asked for their assistance and didn’t specifically say she was seeking $332, so CMS was supposedly not on notice that she was seeking money from them.
Judge Ilana Rovner (a George H. W. Bush nominee) strongly dissented. She reminded her colleagues that courts in the Seventh Circuit are required by precedent to give significant leeway to FTCA plaintiffs who don’t have an attorney:
[W]e have long applied a flexible standard and have made clear that technical deficiencies in an administrative claim are not fatal, provided the proper agency had the opportunity to settle the claim for money damages before the point of suit. [internal quotation marks removed]
In this case, CMS clearly had a chance to settle the claim for money damages, because it should have been clear that’s what Chronis was seeking:
To state that a request for restitution along with talk of out-of-pocket loss, malpractice, and liability is not a money demand defies credulity …
People look to the court for justice when they believe they have been wronged. But Anna Chronis didn’t get her day in court, because her case was dismissed.