Circuit court strikes down New York integration plan for people with mental disabilities

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The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled April 6 that Disability Advocates Inc. did not have “standing” in a lawsuit where the advocacy group won a major victory in 2009 when a district court ruled that New York was violating federal law by unnecessarily institutionalizing as many as 4,300 people with mental illnesses.

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Plan Struck Down

The decision ends the nine-year legal battle, though Disability Advocates hopes it can solve the issues outside the courtroom.

“We are hopeful that this administration has recognized that this is a problem that needs to be solved and we’ll be able to solve it without recommencing litigation,” Cliff Zucker, the executive director of Disability Advocates, told the New York Times.

After a five-week non jury trial, Judge Nicholas Garaufis of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled in 2009 that the state’s system of adult homes violated the Americans with Disabilities by segregating thousands of people with mental illnesses.

The state filed a correction plan, but this was rejected by Garaufis in March 2010 in favor of the plan by Disability Advocates, which required the state to develop 1,500 residences each year for three years and additional beds until the state was in compliance with ADA regulations, according to an article in the New York Law Journal.

Under federal law, every state which accepts certain federal funds must designate a Protection and Advocacy organization. While in most states the P&A is a private nonprofit, New York’s P&A is a state agency, the New York Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities <site no longer available>. Since 1989, Disability Advocates has contracted with the NY CQCAPD.

For a non-membership organization, such as Disability Advocates, to “exercise associational standing” and thus be allowed to sue on behalf of a group of constituents, federal law follows the standard set in a 1977 Supreme Court case that requires the organization to posses the “‘indicia of membership” necessary to ensure the organization is representing the interests of its clients.

For regular P&A organizations, this requirement is not in dispute because federal law requires P&A organizations to have a certain percentage of people with disabilities, or their respective guardians and family members, on the organization’s legally mandated governing board and advisory council.

However, the Second Circuit found that Disability Advocates, in its role as a contractor with the NY CQCAPD, did not fill these requirements and thus was unable to represent New York’s class of people with mental illnesses living in adult homes.

“Tellingly, there is scant evidence in the record that the individuals with mental illness whom (Disability Advocates) purports to represent have the power to elect its directors, make budget decisions, or influence (Disability Advocates’) activities or litigation strategies,” the court stated. “Finally, the record does not establish that (Disability Advocates) ever notified its ‘constituents’ or any of their legal guardians that it was filing this suit purportedly on their behalf.”

The Department of Justice had also filed an amicus brief on behalf of Disability Advocates in October 2009, after the trial court’s initial determination that New York was violating the ADA, but before the court approved Disability Advocates’ remedy. While acknowledging that it is undisputed that the DOJ has the authority to file a similar lawsuit against the state, the Second Circuit ruled that it intervened in process too late to supercede its decision to dismiss the case.

The court also questioned the “scope of the remedy” that the district court ordered for New York to come into compliance with the ADA, though it did not elaborate. However, the court acknowledged that the litigation is unlikely to end soon.

“We are not unsympathetic to the concern that our disposition will delay the resolution of this controversy and impose substantial burdens and transaction costs on the parties, their counsel, and the courts,” the court stated. “Should that situation arise, we are confident that the experienced and able district judge, as a consequence of his familiarity with prior proceedings, can devise ways to lessen those burdens and facilitate an appropriate, efficient resolution.”

Disability Advocates was joined in the lawsuit by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, MFY Legal Services Inc., New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the Urban Justice Center, and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP.