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Judge orders DHSS to pay Planned Parenthood’s legal fees in license dispute

A Cole County judge denied the state health department’s attempt to relitigate a case stemming from a 2019 licensing dispute with Missouri’s lone abortion provider and ordered Missouri to pay Planned Parenthood’s legal fees.

In a ruling Friday afternoon, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem affirmed an administrative court’s ruling that the state must pay Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region for the more than $161,000 in legal bills it amassed defending itself after the state health department declined to renew its license in 2019.

Additionally, Beetem also ordered DHSS to pay Reproductive Health Services about $8,000 it incurred as a result of the litigation arising from the fees dispute.

In May 2020, an administrative hearing commission found the state wrongly denied a license to Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic, the state’s last remaining abortion facility. But despite the state’s unsuccessful attempt to withhold the facility’s license, the Department of Health and Senior Services “seeks to relitigate every issue on which it lost,” Beetem wrote in Friday’s ruling.

Yamelsie Rodríguez

In a statement Monday, Yamelsie Rodríguez, president and CEO of Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, said Friday’s ruling, “is yet another proof point of how costly it is for Missourians when politicians insist on unlawful and politically motivated attacks on abortion.”

“These legal fees represent wasted time and resources that could’ve been used to improve access to health care, maternal mortality, and a crumbling public health system,” Rodríguez said.

Representatives for DHSS and the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday morning.

At a hearing last month, attorneys representing DHSS argued that the department’s investigation into Planned Parenthood that led to the license denial was justified under a provision of state law, and that as a result it was exempt from paying the provider’s legal fees. What’s more, DHSS asked Beetem to allow the state to reopen the case and pursue discovery in order to learn more about Planned Parenthood’s corporate structure.

Richard Muniz, an attorney who argued on behalf of Reproductive Health Services, said at last month’s hearing that “there’s no right to seek a discovery on what is really a meritless theory.”

In his ruling, Beetem affirmed the commission’s finding that Reproductive Health Services was a party to the case that incurred fees and affirmed the commission’s decision to refuse to allow the state to seek additional discovery.

“Under the guise of ‘substantial justification,’ the Department attempts to convert this fees action into a ‘second major litigation,’” Beetem wrote in Friday’s ruling.

The commission’s findings became final after DHSS did not appeal the decision and instead went forward with renewing the facility’s license. By doing so, the department acknowledged the facility was in compliance with state law.

“The department thus acquiesced in the commission’s decision,” Beetem wrote.

Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer and Deputy Solicitor General Maria Lanahan had argued at last month’s hearing that the state was unable to appeal the commission’s decision because it was issued two days before the license was set to expire, rendering the issue moot.

Additionally, Beetem vacated a prior decision by the administrative court regarding Planned Parenthood’s request that other expenses from the underlying case, like from travel and depositions, be paid for by the state. Those expenses total a little over $88,000, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman said.

The commission must determine whether such costs were reasonable and if so award them to Planned Parenthood, Beetem wrote.

This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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