American Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan
Annotate this Case
526 U.S. 40 (1999)
OCTOBER TERM, 1998
AMERICAN MANUFACTURERS MUTUAL INSURANCE CO. ET AL. v. SULLIVAN ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
No. 97-2000. Argued January 19, 1999-Decided March 3,1999
Under Pennsylvania's Workers' Compensation Act, once an employer becomes liable for an employee's work-related injury-because liability either is not contested or is no longer at issue-the employer or its insurer must pay for all "reasonable" and "necessary" medical treatment. To assure that only medical expenses meeting these criteria are paid, and in an attempt to control costs, Pennsylvania has amended its workers' compensation system to provide that a self-insured employer or private insurer (collectively insurer) may withhold payment for disputed treatment pending an independent "utilization review," as to which, among other things, the insurer files a one-page request for review with the State Workers' Compensation Bureau (Bureau), the Bureau forwards the request to a "utilization review organization" (URO) of private health care providers, and the URO determines whether the treatment is reasonable or necessary. Respondents, employees and employee representatives, filed this suit under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 against various Pennsylvania officials, a self-insured public school district, and a number of private workers' compensation insurers, alleging, inter alia, that in withholding benefits without pre deprivation notice and an opportunity to be heard, the state and private defendants, acting "under color of state law," deprived respondents of property in violation of due process. The District Court dismissed the private insurers from the suit on the ground that they are not "state actors," and later dismissed the state officials and school district on the ground that the Act does not violate due process. The Third Circuit disagreed on both issues, holding, among other rulings, that a private insurer's decision to suspend payment under the Act constitutes state action. The court also noted the parties' assumption that employees have a protected property interest in workers' compensation medical benefits, and held that due process requires that payment of medical bills not be withheld until employees have had an opportunity to submit their view in writing to the URO as to the reasonableness and necessity of the disputed treatment.
1. A private insurer's decision to withhold payment and seek utilization review of the reasonableness and necessity of particular medical treatments is not fairly attributable to the State so as to subject the insurer to the Fourteenth Amendment's constraints. State action requires both an alleged constitutional deprivation caused by acts taken pursuant to state law and that the allegedly unconstitutional conduct be fairly attributable to the State. E. g., Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U. S. 922, 937. Here, while it may fairly be said that the first requirement is satisfied, respondents have failed to satisfy the second. The mere fact that a private business is subject to extensive state regulation does not by itself convert its action into that of the State. See, e. g., Blum v. Yaretsky, 457 U. S. 991, 1004. The private insurers cannot be held to constitutional standards unless there is a sufficiently close nexus between the State and the challenged action so that the latter may be fairly treated as that of the State itself. Ibid. Whether such a nexus exists depends on, among other things, whether the State has provided such significant encouragement, either overt or covert, that the choice must in law be deemed to be that of the State. E. g., ibid. That the statutory scheme previously prohibited insurers from withholding payment for disputed medical services and no longer does so merely shows that the State, in administering a many-faceted remedial system, has shifted one facet from favoring the employees to favoring the employer. This sort of decision occurs regularly in the legislative process and cannot be said to "encourage" or "authorize" the insurer's actions. Also rejected is respondents' assertion that the challenged decisions are state action because insurers must obtain "authorization" or "permission" from the Bureau before withholding payment. The Bureau's participation is limited to requiring submission of a form and related functions, which cannot render it responsible for the insurers' actions. See id., at 1007. Respondents' twofold argument that state action is present because the State has delegated to insurers powers traditionally reserved to itself also lacks merit. First, the contention as to delegation of the provision of state-mandated "public benefits" fails because nothing in Pennsylvania's Constitution or statutory scheme obligates the State to provide either medical treatment or workers' compensation benefits to injured workers. See, e. g., Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U. S. 345, 352; West v. Atkins, 487 U. S. 42, 54-56, distinguished. Second, their argument as to delegation of the governmental decision to suspend payment for disputed medical treatment is supported by neither historical practice nor the state statutory scheme. That Pennsylvania originally recognized an insurer's traditionally pri-