United Spinal, et al. v. State of California, et al.

Status:

ON APPEAL, case dismissed with prejudice March 28, 2024, appealed to Ninth Circuit on April 25,2024.

At a Glance:

Compassion & Choices filed a motion to intervene on behalf of six clients — the bill’s sponsor, three people with disabilities who support the option of medical aid in dying and two physicians who participate in the practice of medical aid in dying — on September 21, 2023, in a federal district court lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the California End of Life Option Act (“the Act”).

A coalition of disability rights groups and two people with disabilities filed a lawsuit challenging California’s Act on April 25, 2023 in federal district court, arguing that it discriminates against people with disabilities. Our clients moved to intervene to protect this vital end-of-life option and defend against any attempt to block access to the Act for qualified terminally ill individuals.

On Wednesday, March 28, 2024, a California judge dismissed the lawsuit and found that the law did not violate federal anti-discrimination laws. You can read the press release we issued here. The plaintiffs appealed this decision to the Ninth Circuit on April 25, 2024. Our clients subsequently filed their own appeal on April 26, 2024, challenging the lower court’s dismissal of their Motion to Intervene. On May 30, 2024, our clients also filed a motion to intervene in the plaintiffs’ appeal.

The Details:

In April 2023, a coalition of disability rights groups and two people with disabilities filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the recently updated California End of Life Option Act violates federal disability law and constitutional protections by encouraging people with disabilities to choose the option of medical aid in dying and not seek out alternative healthcare services and supports.

Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the state of California and other state departments and officials seeking to invalidate California’s End of Life Option Act. Their complaint alleges that the Act violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the federal constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process.

On September 21, 2023, Compassion & Choices, with the assistance of O’Melveny, filed a motion to intervene on behalf of:

  • Compassion & Choices Action Network, sister organization to Compassion & Choices and sponsor of SB 380.
  • Burt Bassler, an 88-year-old Pleasanton resident with progressive cardiac amylodosis, or stiff heart syndrome.
  • Judith Coburn, a 80-year-old Berkeley resident who was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer in 2019.
  • Peter Sussman, an 83-year-old Berkeley resident with congenital spinal malformations, arachnoditis and severe neuropathy.
  • Dr. Chandana Banerjee, a hospice and palliative care physician and associate professor at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte.
  • Dr. Catherine Sonquist Forest, a family medicine physician and  clinical associate professor of family medicine in Los Altos.

Our clients also filed a motion to dismiss on September 21, 2023, urging the court to dismiss the case and protect access to this critical end-of-life option. The motion pointed out the numerous safeguards in the End of Life Option Act that protect all patients, including those with disabilities, and argued that the Act does not take away any supportive services for terminally ill people, but rather offers an additional end-of-life option for qualifying patients.

On Wednesday, March 28, 2024, Judge Fernando L. Aenlle-Rocha dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims with prejudice. He found that California’s medical aid-in-dying law does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act because medical aid in dying is always voluntary and doesn’t prevent access to other healthcare options and, therefore, people with disabilities are not “excluded from participation in or denied the benefit of any services.” Similarly, Judge Aenlle-Rocha found that the law did not violate the US Constitution’s guarantee of due process because a “mere disagreement with the efficacy of the EOLOA’s safeguards… is insufficient [when] the plain text of the statute evidences an intent to afford patients ample process to avoid the danger of involuntary death.” Judge Aenlle-Rocha also denied Compassion & Choices’ efforts to intervene on the basis that the intervention had been rendered moot by the dismissal of the case.

UPDATE: May 30, 2024

The plaintiffs appealed this decision to the Ninth Circuit on April 25, 2024. Our clients subsequently filed their own appeal on April 26, 2024, challenging the lower court’s dismissal of their Motion to Intervene. Our clients also filed a Motion to Intervene in the plaintiffs’ Ninth Circuit appeal on May 30, 2024. We will continue to update this page as the appeal progresses. 

Compassion & Choices remains vigilant in our efforts to defend against challenges to medical aid in dying laws and to ensure that terminally ill patients and their advocates are given a voice in these types of lawsuits. To learn more about Compassion & Choices’ work to protect and expand medical aid in dying through the courts, please visit our Medical Aid in Dying Litigation page.

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VICTORY: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the improved End-of-Life Options Act.

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