Court oversight of work on Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan will continue, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 26. A three-judge panel rejected an appeal by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), which sought to have the oversight by federal court officials ended.
DHS had the option to appeal the decision but chose not to do so. “Minnesota has made substantial progress in creating and supporting choices for people with disabilities in education, work, housing and other areas of their lives. We do not plan to appeal the court’s July 26 decision,” DHS Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper said in a statement. “We will continue to work toward making Minnesota a place where people with disabilities have opportunities to be
part of our communities.”
Disability rights advocates and their allies see the ruling as a key win. “This decision recognizes and reconfirms the fundamental reality of a historic settlement, signed by both the State of Minnesota and Minnesota Department of Human Services, requiring compliance with their agreement to protect people with disabilities from abuse and neglect, and provide meaningful plans on a statewide basis to transition and support them in the community,” said attorney Shamus O’Meara. His law firm, O’Meara Leer Wagner & Kohl, has been involved in legal action against the state for almost a decade.
The court case stems from litigation filed in 2009 by families whose relatives were housed at the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) facility in Cambridge. METO was an in-patient facility designed to provide residential treatment and care for persons with developmental disabilities who posed a risk to public safety. Families of those in the program made allegations about improper treatment of residents, including improper use of restraints and seclusion, and harsh physical punishment.
In December 2011 a landmark class action settlement agreement was reached between the families and state officials, in U.S. District Court. METO was closed and replaced with another program. State officials also agreed to eliminate use of physical and chemical restraints and seclusion, to close state facilities that use abusive practices and provide improved training for state employees. A key part of the settlement was to get Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan underway.
The court approved the settlement, appointed an independent monitor and ordered state officials to implement its terms, while retaining jurisdictionto ensure compliance. That period was to continue for two years. In August 2013 both sides agreed to a one-year extension, with the court reserving the authority to order an additional extension of jurisdiction based on the status of compliance with the agreement.
In September 2014, the court determined that DHS was still not in compliance with the settlement agreement and extended jurisdiction another two years, until December 4, 2016. Neither party objected.
At a March 24, 2017 status conference, DHS for the first time objected to the district court’s continued jurisdiction, claiming that court jurisdiction had ended as of December 4, 2014. That led to the appeal.
Court documents from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals describe at length how DHS and the plaintiffs disagreed on their interpretation of the settlement agreement, even including a side-by-side comparison of language.
In its conclusion, the three-judge circuit court panel stated, “We conclude that, while the jurisdictional provision of the agreement is ambiguous on its face, the extrinsic evidence shows that this provision permits the district court to extend its jurisdiction as it ‘deems just and equitable.’ We affirm.”
The July 26 ruling means that the federal district court has the authority to continue to enforcement the settlement, including progress reporting on compliance. “This is an important recognition of the parties’ express intentions in settling this class action lawsuit, and the conduct of the state and DHS over many years specifically recognizing the court’s authority to govern and enforce the settlement and address their repeated noncompliance,” said O’Meara.
“We are surprised at the state and DHS bitterness over a process they specifically agreed upon, based on a settlement they both signed, and their ongoing repeated failures to properly implement and follow dozens of court orders directing them to comply,” O’Meara said. “Had they simply done what they promised under there would be no need for continued court oversight as this matter would have concluded long ago.”
“This decision allows the court to continue its enforcement of a historic settlement with profound positive benefits for individuals with disabilities across Minnesota,” said O’Meara.