What may be a final salvo in a long and complex legal battle was filed October 22 in U.S. District Court. Judge Donovan Frank denied a motion by plaintiffs against the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) and a number of state officials, in which monetary damages and ongoing monitoring were sought.
Court oversight in the case, which has had many implications for Minnesotans with disabilities, came to an end October 24. The case began in 2009 when three families sued over treatment of their children at Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) in Cambridge. What began with three families turned into a class action involving more than 300 people.
Use of restraints and placement of patients in seclusion at METO were at the heart of the lawsuit, filed by the Jensen, Jacobs and Allen-Brinker families. They contended their adult sons were subject to seclusion and restraint, and cruel treatment. The case brought changes to how practices of seclusion and restraint are handled at facilities including the Anoka- Metro Regional Treatment Center and the St. Peter Forensic Mental Health Program. It also led to work on Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan, which outlines how the state will provide inclusion for people with disabilities.
In a recent court filing Frank urged state officials to continue working with disability right advocates to avoid further problems and potential litigation.
Plaintiffs’ counsel Shamus O’Meara filed a motion this fall for appointment of an independent review and sanctions against the state. Frank denied that motion.
The plaintiffs sought sanctions, calling out state officials for decades-long noncompliance that they said “severely delayed the administration of justice, endangered vulnerable citizens and caused the needless expenditure of several thousand hours by the court, consultants and plaintiffs to address DHS non-compliant conduct.”
They asked the court to sanction DHS for $500,000, dividing that amount five ways with $100,000 to the court’s Cy Pres fund to be used for access to justice and improve the lives of people with developmental disabilities and their families. Another $100,000 would go to third party organizations selected by the court, unaffiliated with DHS, to promote the state-wide changes in the agreement including the Minnesota Olmstead Plan, Positive Supports Rule and best practices regarding the use of restraint and seclusion.
The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and Office of the Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities would each have received $100,000 for their executive directors’ work as court consultants. Both requests cited the unprecedented ongoing noncompliance and delay caused by DHS, and for DHS lead counsel’s “contemptuous statements about the Court and Court consultants.” The final $100,000 would have gone for plaintiffs’ counsel for thousands of hours spent addressing unprecedented ongoing DHS non-compliance and delay over 10 years.
Limits on which parties can receive sanctions and a 2105 agreement on sanctions were cited by Frank in rejecting that request. The judge also denied the request for ongoing monitoring.
But he scolded the defendants, noting that they “prioritized litigation tactics over making meaningful lasting improvements in the lives of people with disabilities.”
“Undoubtedly, the court has been troubled due to the failures of Defendants—government actors and public servants—in implementing the Agreement to protect vulnerable Minnesotans such that it required extensive monitoring and extension of the Court’s jurisdiction for nine additional years,” Frank wrote. But notwithstanding previous failure, the court has found that the defendants are finally in substantial compliance with the agreement. At some point, he said the defendants have to be trusted.
But the judge also wrote, “The court has not been shy about its frustrations with how this lawsuit digressed from a forward-looking and hopeful settlement to years of protracted feet-dragging in implementing that very same settlement.”