A settlement in a lengthy federal court case centered on living choices won approval June 15. While intervenors didn’t get what they sought in the class action case of Murphy versus Harpstead, they are using the court case to mobilize on issues and draw new people into self-advocacy.
At issue was a legal settlement negotiated by the Disability Law Center and the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), and whether that settlement addressed issues raised by the Disability Law Center on behalf of Minnesotans with disabilities who want to live in the least restrictive settings possible.
U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank’s ruling concludes that the settlement warrants approval. While many issues raised by those parties have merit, those claims are outside of the case’s scope. Frank agrees with the plaintiff’s contention that the lawsuit is not about addressing staff shortages or how the state funds waiver services.
The case is about whether the agreement is fair, adequate and reasonable, Frank said. It’s not about where a better deal could have been negotiated between the Disability Law Center and the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
“Nothing in the court’s ruling today is meant to minimize the lived experiences of the objectors or any class member,” Frank said in his ruling. “People with disabilities confront stigma and discrimination on a regular basis. It is a shameful part of our country’s past and present. While many issues remain that are separate from this litigation, the court is hopeful that this agreement will create positive change. And the court sincerely hopes that the objectors, plaintiffs, and others within the disability rights community will continue to advocate for their rights. Ultimately, we will all be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.”
The decision approving the settlement followed a May 12 fairness hearing, and comments from a total of 14 objectors. Hovering over the comments was the state’s Olmstead Plan, which requires people with disabilities to live in the least restrictive setting possible.
Class action cases like Murphy versus Harpstead allow affected parties to intervene. in this case intervenors believe the settlement didn’t do enough to end what they see as an overreliance of community residential facilities. They contend that the state’s action create segregation as people with disabilities cannot live in desired community settings.
Frank cited the length that the court dispute went on and recapped key actions in the case. Murphy versus Harpstead began in in August 2016. Murphy is Tenner Murphy, one of the case’s original plaintiffs. Harpstead is DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead.
Frank also pointed out in his ruling that the case needs to be resolved. It has gone on for almost seven years. He said “The cost, risks, and delay of trial and appeal are enormously high . . . . the case has been hotly contested from the beginning. Without settlement, it is likely that this case would continue to drag on for years and require millions of additional dollars in attorney’s fees. Defendant has indicated that if she lost at trial, she would appeal the case which would result in further delay. It is also possible that after trial and appeal a third discovery period would be necessary, which would be both costly and time consuming. In the meantime, the class would receive nothing.”
The settlement provides what is called injunctive relief. This type of settlement puts specific requirements on a defendant. In this case the settlement has resulted in DHS taking actions in five categories: inform and education, train, assess, provide services and measure outcomes. These will bring a wide range of changes to DHS policies and procedures when considering a disabled person’s living situation.
The settlement and documentation fill almost 40 pages. It covers people ages 18 and older who are eligible for and who have received a disability waiver, live in a licensed community residential setting, and have not been given the opportunity and choice to live in the most integrated residential setting appropriate to their needs.
The settlement was reached through meditation and includes more than a dozen provisions that would have to be followed, to ensure that affected people know their rights to move out of their current homes and consider alternative settings.
The settlement requires additional steps in the housing choice and assessment process. Providing this information and service would require specific steps to be followed in MnCHOICES assessments, more training for MNCHOICES assessors, specific tasks for case managers, and changes to the Community Based Services Manual. It would require more tracking of actions tied to housing choices and more information to be provided in a waiver recipient’s community support plan.
Within three months of the settlement agreement DHS will generate a report for each county of financial responsibility, identify disability waiver recipients who live in licensed community residential settings, and see if those people meet specific criteria. Detailed steps would have to be followed.
The agreement also calls for the plaintiff’s attorneys to be paid costs and fees of $1.138 million.
Frank’s ruling pointed out that the settlement requires state officials to make a variety of data publicly available, including the number of people in community residential settings facilities who have applied for Housing Stabilization Services, the number of people in facilities who have been approved for such services, the number of people who have moved out of facilities, the number of people on the original MnCHOICES report, and the number of people for whom DHS reached out to a lead agency.