Class action ruling a win for community

 A key ruling has been made in a court case involving Minnesotans with disabilities who live or lived in corporate […]

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 A key ruling has been made in a court case involving Minnesotans with disabilities who live or lived in corporate adult foster care or group homes. On September 27 a U.S. District Court ruling declared that the policies and practices of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) are violating these Minnesotans’ constitutionally protected due process rights. 

The ruling also allows the case to proceed to trial, as a motion by DHS to have the rest of the case dismissed was denied. The 40-page ruling also urges both sides to reach an agreement in the case. 

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, indicating that DHS is violating the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Medicaid Act by failing to inform persons with disabilities that they are being denied a service to help them move to and live in the community. The ruling stated that DHS’s current policies and practices unlawfully force individuals to “wait indefinitely for requested services, never receiving an explanation on the status of the request, and without an opportunity to appeal” those service denials. 

The case was filed in 2016 on behalf of Tenner Murphy, by his guardian Kay Murphy; Marrie Bottelson; Dionne Swanson; and on behalf of others similarly situated. The DHS commissioner, which has changed over that time, is the defendant. Jodi Harpstead was recently appointed to that position by Gov. Tim Walz. Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) Disability Law Center is the lead attorney for Murphy. 

At the center of the Murphy versus Harpstead case is the desire by people with disabilities to make changes to Minnesota’s Medicaid service system, so that they may live more independent and integrated lives in the community. As the case proceeds through the court system the plaintiffs will be able to argue that their legal claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Medicaid Act will be allowed to proceed to trial. 

In denying DHS’ motion for summary judgment, Frank determined that “a systemwide remedy is the only way to provide relief” to improve the lives of people who seek to move out of group homes but are unable to do so under Minnesota’s current system. 

The case is a class action. Court documents indicate that some people covered by the class action have been placed in appropriate community settings. 

State officials counter that of the 45,438 disability waiver recipients in 2018, only 31 percent lived in group homes, and only 1.3 percent of those living in the facilities are putative class members. State officials argue that they are not over-relying on group homes and that the policies cited in the case don’t prevent people from moving to their preferred settings. DHS also contends that its policies and practices do comply with federal law and that if any alleged harm has occurred, the commissioner may not be held liable in her official capacity. 

MMLA is pleased with the ruling. “Actions speak louder than words. For decades, DHS has made promises to our clients to provide services in the most integrated setting, and yet it has failed to honor that legal obligation, even though it is responsible for running the very program at issue in the suit,” said MMLA’s Litigation Director Justin Perl, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “The current system is chock full of problems, and we are prepared to take the case to trial to protect the rights of the class members who have waited too long for DHS to do its job. We believe this case will improve the lives of all individuals living in group homes, by informing them of their housing options and supporting people with disabilities in an integrated setting in the community, just like people without disabilities. We need a consistent statewide system, as Judge Frank recognized, not one that is often dependent on the county in which one lives. It is time for DHS to stop shirking its responsibility to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. If it chooses not to do so, we are prepared to take the matter to trial in order to protect the rights of our clients.” As of Access Press deadline, DHS had not issued a response. The disability advocacy coalition ARRM has been an amicus party to the case. 

The issue of housing and services in group home settings has long been a difficult one for people with disabilities. Historically such facilities were and still are presented as a vast improvement over the large institutional settings where people were warehoused in the past. But all across the country, there has been debate over whether group homes provide a chance to be part of the community or if they are still a form of segregation. 

The plaintiffs in the Murphy case seek modifications to Minnesota’s residential service system to provide individuals with choices and prevent needless segregation of individuals in segregated residential settings. One request made throughout the case’s history is for more access to waiver services, which would allow people to do planning and look at options for moving out of facilities and into the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. Timeliness of services under the Medicaid Act and violations of the ADA and RA are claimed as plaintiffs contend the state has failed to provide them with housing. 

The case has been a class action since September 2017. 

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