Thursday, April 05, 2012

N.D. Ga. Holds that Georgia Violates Rights of Deaf Georgians who Use Mental Health Services

Last week, Judge Richard W. Story of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia issued an opinion granting the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on liability in Belton v. Georgia, 2012 WL 1080304 (N.D. Ga., Mar. 30, 2012).  The named plaintiffs are two deaf individuals who have both psychiatric and developmental disabilities.  The state found each eligible to receive home and community-based waiver services in a group home, but neither could find a group home provider that would accommodate a deaf client who speaks American Sign Language.  They sued for themselves and on behalf of a class of deaf Georgians who qualify to receive mental health and developmental disability services from the state.  They alleged that the Georgia mental health and developmental disability system violated the ADA and Rehabilitation Act rights of deaf consumers in four respects:
(1) the State's lack of ASL-fluent mental health practitioners; (2) the State's failure to reimburse medical providers for interpreting services; (3) the State's failure to provide deaf-appropriate group home care settings; and (4) the State's refusal to provide adequate funding for deaf services.
The plaintiffs moved for summary judgment on liability (both on their individual and their class claims), and the court granted the motion.  The court concluded that the record established "as a matter of law that the named Plaintiffs have been denied the benefit of a State-provided mental health care service, group home living, in violation of the ADA."  As to the class claims, the court pointed to unrebutted testimony "that the State currently faces a severe shortage of community living arrangements designed to accommodate the needs of the deaf"; that "the State faces a severe shortage of ASL-proficient practitioners," which "is a barrier to deaf consumers receiving adequate mental health care"; and that "the State's failure to reimburse health care providers for the cost of interpreters disincentives practitioners from serving deaf consumers, thereby exacerbating deaf consumers' lack of access to the State's mental health care services."  The court ordered that the case be assigned to a magistrate judge for mediation to determine the appropriate remedy.

This is an important decision with potentially far-reaching implications.

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