Key legal settlement is a win for living choices in the community 

Key legal settlement is a win for living choices in the community 

by Jane McClure 

After almost six years, a lengthy class action lawsuit centered on living choices is coming to an end. More than 1,000 Minnesotans should be able to move out of group homes and into independent living settings, with the help of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). 

A preliminary settlement was announced in late July by the Minnesota Disability Law Center, a division of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. The case goes back to U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank on January 4, 2023. Frank is expected to give final approval of the settlement that day. 

In the federal lawsuit, Murphy et al. v. Harpstead, state officials are accused of isolating disabled people from their home communities and being overly restrictive in living situations. Legal Aid estimates that the settlement will positively affect more than 1,000 Minnesotans with disabilities. It will also affect people going forward. 

There are about 13,000 Minnesotans living in group homes at this time. 

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs are Tenner Murphy, Marrie Bottelson; Dionne Swanson; and others. They filed the suit against DHS, which has changed commissioners over time. Jodi Harpstead is the current commissioner. 

The lawsuit became a class action in 2017, allowing more people to join. 

“This settlement will ensure a greater opportunity for all class members to live in homes they can call their own, no longer stuck in settings with utter strangers, and provide a more innovative choice to live in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs, as the U.S. Supreme Court required as far back as 1999,” said Justin Perl, Legal Aid attorney and lead counsel in the case. 

The plaintiffs live or have lived in group homes. They have asked to move into homes or apartments of their own, but didn’t get the help they needed to make the move happen. 

They contend that disability programs run by DHS rely too heavily on four-person group homes. That over-reliance on one housing option is called out as a violation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Olmstead v. L.C. The Olmstead decision stipulates that disabled people have the right to fully participate in their communities, and live more integrated and independent lives in the community. 

Plaintiffs have described what they see as overly rigid group home rules, and being told when they can eat, sleep, have guests, have pets or pursue work and hobbies. 

“I am very happy with the result. I hope this case will help other people like myself with getting the services they need to move if they want,” said plaintiff Dionne Swanson. 

DHS issued a statement after the ruling, saying it works to improve housing access but that it is challenging to find housing for people with disabilities. 

There have been more than 170 group home closures in Minnesota in recent months due to staff shortages. Residents have had to move, with some moving in with elderly parents. Other disabled people are moving from independent living to group homes because of staff shortages. 

The plaintiffs have sought to change Minnesota’s Medicaid service system. Throughout the case’s history there have been pleas for more access to disability waiver services. More access would allow people to do planning and seek 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 Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal regulations are also claimed. 

State officials have contended over the years that they aren’t relying too heavily on group homes and that people can move to other residential settings. 

The case has had a long and complex path through the court system. A key ruling was made in 2019, that the policies and practices of DHS violated the plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected due process rights. That allowed the case to proceed. 

The newly announced settlement agreement requires DHS to take a variety of specific steps to improve access and opportunities for disabled people who want to live in their own homes or apartments. A key piece of the agreement is that DHS must identify everyone living in group homes who said they wanted to look into more individualized housing options. DHS will give each of these individuals information about accessing housing transition services, known as Housing Stabilization Services, a Medicaid benefit announced in 2020. 

DHS will track the people identified and make sure they get support from their case managers and get access to such services  

DHS will also:  

• require housing-related trainings for all case managers  

• collect and publish data to measure if people living in group homes are successfully moving into their new homes, and  

• make sure that anyone who wants to appeal a denial of Housing Stabilization Services knows how to do it.  

Legal Aid encourages all people with disabilities who are receiving services in a group home and who would like to move into a more individualized setting to continue to communicate this goal to case managers and in the annual MnCHOICES assessment.  

The settlement also provides Legal Aid $1.138 million dollars for attorneys’ fees and costs. The money lets Legal Aid continue its mission of advancing the rights of Minnesotans with disabilities and improving the lives of the most vulnerable members of the community. Legal Aid worked on this case with partners from Anthony Ostlund Louwagie Dressen & Boylan P.A. and Nichols Kaster PLLP.