M.D.N.C.: Enjoins NC Law Barring Funds to Planned Parenthood

In response to a challenge to the constitutionality of a North Carolina law prohibiting the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”) from providing state or federal funds to Planned Parenthood, a district court granted a preliminary injunction to enjoin DHHS from enforcing the law.  The court held that a preemption claim for prospective relief was permissible and that the state law conflicted with federal law.  The court further held that the state law violated the First Amendment, Due Process Clause, and Equal Protection Clause.  Planned Parenthood of Cent. N.C. v. Cansler, No. 11-CV-531, 2011 WL 3658902 (M.D.N.C. Aug. 19, 2011). Chief Judge James A. Beatty, Jr., a Clinton nominee, wrote the opinion.

Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina (“PPCNC”) filed this lawsuit shortly after the North Carolina legislature passed North Carolina Session Law 2011-145 over the veto of Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue. Section 10.19 of the Session Law specifically prohibits Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, but no other organizations, from receiving any funding for programs administered by DHHS. Thus, Section 10.19 prohibits PPCNC from receiving state and federal funds, including those already allocated to the organization, for contraceptive and teen pregnancy programs. Due to the loss of funding, PPCNC alleges that it would be unable to provide free or low-cost contraceptives to low-income women, that it would need to lay off staff members who are responsible for teaching a course about teen pregnancy prevention, and that it would need to close one of its clinics.

PPCNC claimed that Section 10.19 violates the Supremacy Clause because it conflicts with Title X, which provides criteria for family planning projects.  42 U.S.C. § 300(b).  The federal regulations state that “any public or nonprofit private entity in a State” may apply for and receive Title X funding as long as the funding is used for approved family planning methods and services. 42 C.F.R. §§ 59.3, 59.5.  According to the Plaintiff, Section 10.19 conflicts with Title X by prohibiting funding for Planned Parenthood.

The Defendant argued both that Title X does not confer a right enforceable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and that only the federal government could enforce a violation of the Supremacy Clause.  The court did not address whether Title X meets the requirements for § 1983 enforcement, focusing instead on the preemption issue.  The court cited numerous cases that have permitted private individuals to bring claims for injunctive relief under the Supremacy Clause.  The court noted that the issue is presently before the Supreme Court in the coming term, but concluded that the claim is permissible in accordance with “the present weight of authority and the current law of the Fourth Circuit.”  Addressing the merits of the preemption claim, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that, on the merits, the state law did not actually conflict with federal law.  The court agreed with two circuit courts and three district courts holding that similar state laws conflict with and are therefore preempted by federal law.  The court summarily rejected the Defendant’s Eleventh Amendment challenge, noting that the case seeks only prospective relief, not monetary damages, and accordingly may proceed under the Ex parte Young doctrine.

The court next assessed PPCNC’s claim that Section 10.19 violates the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it limits funding for a certain group of grantees rather than for a particular types of project. The court found that Section 10.19 clearly denies funding based on activities (namely abortion) for which PPCNC did not seek funding. After citing several cases, the court concluded that a “state may not bar an entity from the benefit of funding for which it would otherwise be eligible based on the entity’s participation in unrelated ‘legal and constitutionally-protected conduct.’” See Planned Parenthood of Kan. and Mid-Missouri v. Brownback, No. 11-2357, 2011 WL 3250720, at *15 (D. Kan. Aug. 1, 2011). The court concluded that the existing case law supports the Plaintiff’s First and Fourteenth claims.

The court next assessed PPCNC’s claim that Section 10.19 violates the Constitution’s prohibition against Bills of Attainder because it singles out Planned Parenthood and its affiliates for punishment without a “rational or nonpunitive basis.” The court observed that the legislative history indicates that Section 10.19 was passed to punish Planned Parenthood and its affiliates. Senator Warren Daniel stated that “I just [want to] point out to this body that 97 percent of the pregnant women that go to a Planned Parenthood clinic are sold an abortion,” and that “I think that’s an appalling statistic, and I’m not interested in the constituents in my district funding an organization with these kinds of numbers.” According to the Plaintiff, these statements are not accurate. While the Defendant argued that Section 10.19 is not punitive and serves the legitimate purpose of funding “childbirth over abortions,” the court concluded that the evidence before it establishes a likelihood of success for the claim at trial.

The Plaintiff next argued that Section 10.19 violates the Equal Protection Clause because it singles them out for unequal treatment. The court began its analysis by stating that it would not assess this claim in “great detail” because it had already concluded that Plaintiff has established a likelihood of success on multiple bases. Nevertheless, the court concluded that “Defendant has not presented any evidence or even contention to establish how Section 10.19’s ban on using PPCNC for non-abortion-related projects is rationally related to a legislative policy of funding childbirth services over abortion services.”

The court next held that PPCNC would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction against Section 10.19. The court found that Section 10.19 had already forced PPCNC to stop providing free long-lasting contraceptives to low-income women; that it will force PPCNC to lay off staff members who are responsible for teaching a course about teen pregnancy prevention and to abandon its Latino Family Planning program; and that it will most likely force PPCNC to close its Durham Clinic within a few weeks.

The court then concluded that the balance of equities favored granting the injunction, emphasizing the funds barred by Section 10.19 had already been allocated to PPCNC. The balance of equities favored PPCNC, because it is likely that the Plaintiff would be irreparably harmed in the absence of an injunction, whereas the “granting of an injunction by the Court would not impose any undue burden on Defendant, since the injunction would not create any funding burden or otherwise impose any burden on the state.”

Finally, the court concluded that the public interest is better served by enjoining enforcement of Section 10.19. The court reasoned that because enforcing Section 10.19 would result in members of the public having less access to public health services, the public interest is better served by enjoining its enforcement.

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