Twenty years have passed since the Supreme Court mandated integration of people with disabilities into community-based settings, yet many mental health care providers continue to segregate them in state-supported institutions. Community integration generates more opportunities for education, jobs, and social interactions, and it helps combat harmful stigmas and stereotypes around mental disabilities. As the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law recently noted, expansion of community services and de-institutionalization has enabled large numbers of people with disabilities to live and thrive in their own homes and communities.
Soon, people with disabilities living in state institutions in the District of Columbia may also have a chance at community integration. Last month, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decided Brown v. District of Columbia, 928 F.3d 1070 (D.C. Cir. 2019), in favor of a class of about 1,000 residents of D.C.-supported nursing facilities who are seeking transfers to community-based care. The class alleged that the District failed to transition them out of the public institutions in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities by programs receiving federal assistance (here, Medicaid, which helps fund the nursing facilities). The plaintiffs sought a court order requiring the D.C. government to implement an orderly transition plan that would integrate them into the community.
Fundamental to the class’s claims was the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999). Olmsteadheld that institutionalization of persons with disabilities may constitute unlawful discrimination under the ADA. The Court said that states must transition people with disabilities out of state institutions and integrate them into the community in most circumstances, as long as such a placement could be reasonably accommodated. States could oppose transition or offer an alternative, however, if their own professionals reasonably determined that community integration was inappropriate, if the persons themselves did not desire transition, or if the resources or the needs of other persons with disabilities did not allow for transition.
In the district court, the plaintiffs in Brown v. District of Columbia unsuccessfully argued that D.C.’s “Olmstead Plan,” that is, its proposal to transition them out of institutionalized care, did not satisfy the Supreme Court’s rule. After a bench trial, the district court ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to show that D.C.’s transition services bore a “concrete, systemic deficiency” that harmed the entire class and necessitated a class-wide solution. Absent a common policy or practice that affected every individual in the class, the court held it could not order their integration into the community.
On appeal, the D.C. Circuit rejected the district court’s interpretation of Olmstead and reversed in favor of the plaintiff class. The panel said that, under Olmstead, the state bears the burden of proving that a proposed reasonable accommodation to integrate people with disabilities is unreasonable. According to the panel, the district court fundamentally misconstrued Olmstead by looking for concrete systemic deficiencies in the state’s plan, which “require[d] Plaintiffs to meet a burden they should not have been made to shoulder.”
The panel also determined that the plaintiffs should have been permitted to proceed as a class to challenge the adequacy of D.C.’s transition plan. “[C]ommonproof will lead to common answers to each of the five questions on which resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims turns,” the panel emphasized. It also concluded that plaintiffs’ proposed relief, a class-wide injunction, would provide each class member an increased opportunity to transition to the community. The panel remanded the case to the district court for further review.
Concurring in the judgment, Judge Wilkins argued that the majority misapplied Olmstead to the present case and “unduly cabin[ed]” D.C.’s discretion in crafting services for persons with disabilities. Rather, he would have granted the district court a “freer hand” to determine adequate transition services and appropriate relief, once it applied the correct burden of proof.
Despite Olmstead’s long-standing integration mandate, many jurisdictions still have a long way to go to ensure that people with disabilities are afforded equal opportunity for services and successful community life. Brown stands as an important clarification that the onus is on the state to show that it is living up to the requirements of the ADA and fulfilling the law’s promises for disability rights.
The plaintiffs were represented by the AARP Foundation and Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC on appeal, and by the AARP Foundation, Disability Rights D.C., and Arent Fox LLP at the trial court.