California Class Action Update
"Thousands of Californians with developmental disabilities are needlessly isolated and segregated from mainstream society in large congregate public and private institutions. Every year hundreds more find themselves at risk of institutionalization due to the lack of appropriate community supports and crisis intervention. Plaintiffs bring this lawsuit to restore their legal rights to freedom from such institutionalization and to live, with appropriate supports, in our neighborhoods."
The plaintiffs requested that the case be certified as a class action on behalf of all California residents with a developmental disability who were institutionalized or were at risk of being institutionalized. They presented evidence that state officials had acknowledged that people with developmental disabilities could live in their communities with appropriate services:
One Department official indicated "it is possible to serve the majority of people in the community if the appropriate resources are there and if the capacity of the community exists as a general principle." When queried about the percentage of people in developmental centers who could live in the community with appropriate supports and services, another Department official responded "100 percent" and agreed that people with the most significant support challenges can be served in noninstitutional settings. One regional center director stated his belief that "everyone who is in the developmental center can be served in a community setting." Another testified that "all of the approximately 125 people that reside at the developmental center from the area are capable of living in the community successfully."
Two parent groups, along with some institutional residents who stated that they wished to remain in the developmental centers, intervened in the litigation and argued that the plaintiffs did not represent their interests. (One of the requirements for a class action lawsuit is that the members of the class must all have common interests.) The trial court was persuaded by this argument and ruled that the suit could not be maintained as a class action.
An appeal followed. Concluding that the trial court was wrong, the Court of Appeal pointed out that all of the class members had a common interest in obtaining appropriate services, despite their political and philosophical disagreements. The parent groups could have no legitimate interest in opposing an effort to enforce state and federal laws that protected the rights of people with disabilities. The Court of Appeal stated:
"No matter how well intentioned parents and conservators may be, they cannot exert their influence to curtail or deny the due process rights of persons with developmental disabilities."
The trial court also was mistaken, said the Court of Appeal, in believing that individual hearings would be adequate to protect the rights of people with developmental disabilities. The hearing process could not provide systemic relief because it was not designed to address policy issues. Thus, a class action was clearly superior to other alternatives for resolving the plaintiffs' claims. The Court of Appeal also noted the vulnerability of many class members, as follows:
"The very nature of this class cries out for a class treatment and a systemic approach because the individuals whose rights allegedly have been violated are persons with cognitive or other severe disabilities, many without the resources to undertake the complex and daunting task of suing the myriad agencies involved in the delivery of services."
It's good to see that California has some enlightened appellate judges who really understand disability rights issues and their social context. Kudos to the Court of Appeal!