Thursday, October 9, 2014

Volunteer ambulance corps is not a state actor under the Constitution

The Constitution does not regulate all behavior. It only regulates government activity. If I tell you to shut up, there is no First Amendment violation. If the Mayor tells you to shut up at a Village Board meeting, you might have a lawsuit. But the lines are not always clear-cut. How do we know when entities are "state actors" or private actors?

The case is Grogan v. Blooming Grove Volunteer Ambulance Corps, decided on September 29. As a Corps volunteer, Grogan was charged with misconduct and released from the organization. She sues for due process violations. She cannot proceed, the Court of Appeals (Hall, Chin and Cabranes) says, because the Corps is not a government entity.

There are two ways to show that an entity is a state actor: (1) if it performs a public function or (2) if government is entwined in the entity's management. Grogan cannot meet either test.

First, an entity performs a public function if the function that the government has traditionally performed, like medical care for prison inmates, animal control, fire protection and holding primary elections. Plaintiff says that ambulance services is also a traditional government function, but the Court of Appeals disagrees. New York law says that municipalities "may" provide for these services, but they are not required to do so. While the government has traditionally provided medical care to wounded soldiers, that does not mean similar services to the general population fall in the same category. And, even if ambulance services were a government function, Grogan still can't win because her lawsuit deals with a personnel matter, not the performance of those ambulance services.

Plaintiff also cannot show state action under the "entwinement" test. If the government is entwined with the entity's management or control, then the Constitution governs that entity's actions. While the ambulance corps is heavily regulated, that is not enough to show state action. Plaintiff "is required to show that the State is so entwined with [the Corps'] management that its personnel decisions are fairly attributable to the State." Since the government does not appoint members of the Corps' governing board or has any say in its personnel decisions, the Corps is not a state actor for purposes of this employment case.

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