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December 14, 2012Alerts

Federal Court of Appeals Vacates Lower Court’s Decision in Benjamin v. Dep’t of Public Welfare

Sent by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania –

Friends –

On Wednesday, the federal Court of Appeals vacated the lower court’s decision in Benjamin v. Dep’t of Public Welfare, a class action lawsuit to secure community services for residents of state ICFs/IID who are appropriate for and not opposed to discharge in accordance with the ADA’s integration mandate.  The plaintiffs and DPW entered into a settlement agreement following the district court’s ruling that DPW violated the ADA’s integration mandate.  While the lower court denied a motion by family members of nine ICF/IID residents to intervene in the lawsuit to oppose the settlement and to challenge class certification, it permitted those settlement opponents and their attorneys to participate in the fairness hearing to determine whether to approve the settlement.  Following the fairness hearing, the lower court approved the settlement agreement.  The settlement opponents appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that, even though the settlement opponents are not class members, the district court abused its discretion in not permitting them to intervene in the remedy phase of the lawsuit to challenge the class certification decision and the decision approving the settlement agreement.  Slip op. at 20.  Stressing that “this case implicates the health, safety, and welfare of more than a thousand highly vulnerable individuals,” id., noting that many have “profound ‘mental retardation’” as well as other disabilities, id. at 31, the appellate court held that the settlement opponents have a “sufficient interest” that may be impaired by the settlement or other remedy in this litigation and in the class definition.  Id. at 30 (quotation omitted).

With respect to the settlement opponents’ interest in the settlement agreement, the court noted that:  (1) the settlement requires all ICF/IID residents, their families, and guardians to be interviewed annually to assess their preference relating to discharge; (2) the agreement’s community education provisions do not require any information about possible “disadvantages or risks of community placement or about the possible advantages of ICF/[IID] care”; (3) the settlement opponents’ family members may be discharged in the future if the settlement opponents die; (4) ICF/IID residents who are discharged are not entitled to return to the ICF/IID after a 60-day transition period; and (5) the settlement might impact funding for the ICFs/IID.  Id. at 31-38.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals emphasized that it was not expressing any opinion as to whether or not the class should be decertified and whether the settlement agreement or any other settlement that might be reached should be approved or disapproved.  Id. at 21, 43, 45.  Accordingly, the case will now return to the lower court to decide these issues with the participation of the settlement opponents.  Id. at 43.  The lower court has scheduled a status conference for January 31 when we will discuss how to proceed to remedy the violations of the ADA’s integration mandate.

Thank you,

Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg