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Cook v. Hobbins

United States District Court, D. Utah

March 10, 2017

MONICA C. COOK, Plaintiff,
v.
DEBRA F. HOBBINS, MARK B. STEINAGEL, FRANCINE A. GIANI, MICHELLINA STOFFEL, BRITTANY BUTSCH, DEBRA A. SCHILLEMAN, SUSAN M. KIRBY, MARIE PARTRIDGE, BARBARA JEFFRIES, M. PEGGY BROWN, K. JOEL ALLRED, TONYA BAILEY, JOHN R. KILLPACK, DIANA PARRISH, ALISA BANGERTER, CESCILEE RALL, RALPH C. PITTMAN, CAROL INGLESBY, and STATE OF UTAH, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Bruce S. Jenkins, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On September 28, 2016 Defendants Debra F. Hobbins, Mark B. Steinagel, Francine A. Giani, Michellina Stoffel, Brittany Butsch, Debra A. Schilleman, Susan M. Kirby, Marie Partridge, Barbara Jeffries, M. Peggy Brown, K. Joel Allred, Tonya Bailey, John R. Killpack, Diana Parrish, Alisa Bangerter, Cescilee Rail, Ralph C. Pittman, Carol Inglesby, and State of Utah filed a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction and Failure to State a Claim ("Motion to Dismiss").[1] Plaintiff Monica C. Cook filed an opposition on December 15, 2016.[2] Defendants filed a reply on January 11, 2017.[3] Defendants' Motion to Dismiss came before the court for hearing on January 18, 2017.[4] David S. Cook appeared on behalf of the Plaintiff. Darin B. Goff appeared on behalf of the Defendants.

         At the close of oral argument, the court reserved on the matter.[5] The court asked Defendants to submit additional briefing to the court addressing whether they had complied with the notice requirement of Utah Administrative Code, Nurse Practice Act Rule R1 56-1-308(c). The Defendants filed the Affidavits of Tanja Salazar and Carol Inglesby on January 25, 2017 indicating that they had sent notice of license renewal to Ms. Cook. Plaintiff filed a Supplemental Memorandum Responding to the Affidavits of Tanja Salazar and Carol Inglesby on February 16, 2017.

         Having considered the parties' briefs, the evidence presented, the arguments of counsel, and the relevant law, the court hereby GRANTS Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.

         DISCUSSION

         In their briefing on the Motion to Dismiss, Defendants argue that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted for each of Plaintiff's causes of action: (1) equal protection, (2) procedural due process, and (3) excessive fine and cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.[6] The court will consider each issue in turn.

         According to Rule 12 (b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint may be dismissed if it is "clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations."[7] In order "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'"[8] A plaintiff is obligated "to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief [which] requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do."[9]

         A. Equal Protection Claim

         Plaintiff has not alleged facts that allow the court to plausibly infer the violation of equal protection. To survive the Motion to Dismiss, Ms. Cook's equal protection claim must allege facts that assert (1) "state action intentionally discriminates between groups of persons, " and (2) there is no "upright governmental purpose" behind the distinction.[10]

         The state action that Ms. Cook claims violates the Equal Protection Clause are Utah Code Section 58-31b-305(3) and Utah Administrative Code, Nurse Practice Act Rule Rl56-31b-303(b).[11] These regulations discuss the Advance Practice Registered Nurse ("APRN") license renewal process, which differs for individuals initially licensed before and after July 1, 1992.[12]Ms. Cook is a post-1992 APRN licensee because she received her initial APRN license after July 1, 1992.[13]

         Plaintiff characterizes this regulation as state action that impermissibly discriminates between pre- and post-1992 APRNs because of the different license renewal requirements for each group.[14] However, Ms. Cook has failed to allege facts that address whether there is an "upright government purpose" behind the distinction.[15]

         As Plaintiff acknowledges, "the expressed statutory purpose of the [Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing ("DOPL")] medical practitioner licensing procedure and of the Utah Nurse Practice act is to ensure the welfare and safety of patients and to guard against medical malpractice and abuse of patients."[16] She argues in her opposition to the Motion that "the burden placed on all post July 1, 1992 APRNs is obviously not required to ensure safe treatment of patients, " because "all APRNs are required to treat patients competently and safely."[17]

         However, the question that the court must address is "whether the state's intentional decision to discriminate can be justified by reference to some upright government purpose."[18]Indeed, "the law ... may take cognizance of meaningful distinctions between individuals without violating the constitutional command of treating similarly situated persons similarly."[19]

         The general purpose behind the APRN renewal process is to protect the public health and safety and prevent public harm or injury.[20] In its brief submitted to the Utah Court of Appeals, DOPL explains that the renewal requirements have been adopted for the specific purpose of assuring "that all APRNs are qualified-through national certification if it was available at the time of initial licensing, and by alternative means if it was not."[21] It appears that the renewal requirements for pre-1992 APRNs are an attempt to accommodate for the fact that a national certification process was not available at the time of initial licensing.

         Therefore, the intentional decision to differentiate between pre-1992 and post-1992 APRN renewal procedures is justified by the state's specific purpose of assuring all APRNs are qualified and its general purpose of protecting the public health and safety. The state does this by considering the different circumstances in place at the time of initial APRN licensing and accounts for these differences in each group's respective renewal requirements.

         From the allegations in Plaintiffs complaint and the arguments offered in her response to the Motion, it cannot plausibly be inferred that the purpose is not upright or that there is no rational basis for this distinction. The court finds that the Plaintiff has failed to state an equal protection claim.

         B. Procedural Due Process Claim

         Plaintiff has not alleged facts that allow the court to plausibly infer the violation of due process. To survive the Motion to Dismiss, Ms. Cook's procedural due process claim must address (1) "whether a liberty or property interest exists, " and (2) "whether the State provided sufficient procedures."[22]

         Ms. Cook claims that she was "depriv[ed] of her liberty interest in her reputation, " by DOPL when it revoked her license and published a notice to that effect.[23] However, Plaintiff does not assert sufficient facts that specifically address the second prong of this analysis, explain what the required due process procedures are, whether they were adequate, and how they were not followed.

         The record demonstrates that Ms. Cook engaged with the administrative and judicial process over an extended period. After her license was revoked, the Board of Nursing reviewed the matter: there was a hearing; there was a record of the hearing; Ms. Cook was represented by counsel at the hearing; there was an opportunity to examine and present witnesses; the administrative law judge presided at the hearing; the decision was ultimately a board decision and was adopted by DOPL.[24] The required process was followed.

         Thereafter, Plaintiff appealed the DOPL decision to the Utah Court of Appeals.[25] While the court "decline[d] to review [the equal protection and due process arguments] because Cook ha[d] failed to carry her burden on appeal, "[26] it found that revoking Ms. Cook's licenses to be "a draconian response, "[27] and directed the Department of Commerce, DOPL, and Board of ...


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