Monday, December 17, 2012

Third Circuit: Objecting Guardians Had a Right to Intervene in Remedial Stage of Olmstead Deinstitutionalization Case

Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued an opinion in Benjamin ex rel. Yock v. Department of Public Welfare.  The case was brought by five plaintiffs with intellectual disabilities who reside in institutions operated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  They alleged that the institutions were not the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs, and that the Commonwealth was therefore violating the ADA as interpreted in the Olmstead case.  The district court certified a plaintiff class consisting of:
All persons who: (1) currently or in the future will reside in on[e] of Pennsylvania's state-operated intermediate care facilities for persons with mental retardation; (2) could reside in the community with appropriate services and supports; and (3) do not or would not oppose community placement.
A group of guardians and next friends who opposed community placement for their wards who resided in state institutions sought to intervene following certification of the class.  The district court denied that motion, and the Third Circuit, in an unpublished opinion filed last year, affirmed.  In last year's opinion, the Third Circuit explained that:
The current parties have deliberately defined the class and the relief sought so that Intervenors' right to choose institutional treatment would not be affected. 
The District Court made its intent clear. The class it certified expressly excludes all current and future residents of ICFs/MR who oppose, or would at any relevant time in the future oppose, community placement. It therefore excludes Intervenors, and they will not be personally bound by anything that is decided in this litigation. It follows that, if the DPW should threaten in the future to coerce them into leaving their current institutions, Intervenors would be free to file their own suit and litigate whether they have a legally enforceable right to remain in the institution where they currently reside.
Shortly after the Third Circuit affirmed the denial of intervention, the plaintiffs and the Commonwealth reached agreement on a proposed settlement of the litigation.  In its opinion last week, the Third Circuit described the settlement as follows:
This fifteen-page document contains several significant components, including the establishment of: (1) an annual assessment process to create, maintain and update a “Planning List” consisting of “all state ICF/MR residents who have been identified as not opposed to discharge to community placement” (JA470); (2) educational, training, and outreach programs about community placement; (3) a viable “Integration Plan” providing community placements to a minimum number of ICF/MR residents on the Planning List in each fiscal year until each and every resident on the Planning List has been discharged; and (4) a number of budgetary steps designed to facilitate compliance with this Integration Plan.
The objecting guardians filed objections to this settlement, and they also filed a new motion to intervene to participate in the remedial stage of the case.  The district court denied the motion to intervene, but it said that it would consider the guardians' objections in deciding whether to approve the settlement.  After a fairness hearing, at which the guardians participated and presented their objections, the district court approved the settlement.

In its opinion last week, the Third Circuit reversed the district court's denial of the guardians' motion to intervene in the remedial stage of the case.  The appellate court concluded that "there are several components of the Settlement Agreement reached by the parties (and ultimately approved by the District Court after it denied Appellants' motions to intervene) that may affect or impair the protectable interests of Appellants themselves as well as other ICF/MR residents, guardians, and involved family members."  The court also said that "Appellants' interests in this stage of this complex yet important case—and the possible effects of the disposition of this stage on their interests—extend to the District Court's underlying class definition."  Accordingly, the Third Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion by denying intervention to the objecting guardians at the remedial stage.  But the appellate court was careful to emphasize the limited nature of its holding:
We merely determine that, given the possible effects of the Settlement Agreement, Appellants possess “a sufficient interest” in the remedy stage of the litigation and that their “interest may be affected or impaired as a practical matter” by the disposition of this distinct stage of this complex yet important case. We express no opinion whatsoever as to whether or not the Settlement Agreement (or any other settlement that may be reached in this proceeding) should ultimately be approved—or whether the class itself should or should not be decertified. All such matters must be decided in the first instance by the District Court on remand—with the full and appropriate participation of Appellants as Rule 24(a)(2) intervenors.

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