State's 10-year legal fight with disability advocates ends with judge's scathing ruling

State's 10-year legal fight with disability advocates ends with judge's scathing ruling Photo: Minnesota Department Human Services.

Joe Augustine
Updated: September 16, 2020 02:11 PM
Created: September 16, 2020 01:58 PM

A contentious, drawn-out court battle over how people with developmental disabilities are restrained in state-run facilities will soon come to a close after more than a decade, but a federal judge warns the state will face more lawsuits if it does not set a better standard for the care of vulnerable adults.

While Judge Donovan Frank concluded earlier this month that he no longer needs to monitor two state-run facilities to ensure they are complying with best practices, he blamed the Minnesota Department of Human Services for failing to make “meaningful lasting improvements in the lives of people with disabilities.”

Frank also chastised the state’s largest agency for repeatedly delaying, objecting to, and fighting responsibilities established in a landmark 2011 settlement that disability advocates hoped would lead to widespread reform and set a national standard for care.

“At best, these actions fall short of the ideals Defendants initially espoused,” Frank wrote. “At worst, they are an embarrassment to the State of Minnesota as a whole and a manifest injustice against the persons the Agreement was intended to serve.”

The legal battle started back in 2009 when more than 300 individuals with developmental disabilities filed a class action lawsuit detailing how they had been abused with handcuffs and leg shackles at the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) program in Cambridge.

Former Attorney General Lori Swanson quickly moved to settle the case on behalf of DHS and reached a deal two years later that led to $3 million in damages, closing the METO program and dramatic rule changes that included prohibiting the use of mechanical restraints. It also led to Minnesota’s historic Olmstead Plan, a wide-ranging set of reforms designed to improve the lives of people with disabilities through better housing, employment and integration into their communities.

But the seismic efforts to overhaul the state system devolved into a bitter court battle that resulted in a federal judge having to step in to make sure the terms of the settlement were being followed by DHS.

The court repeatedly noted a lack of progress and questioned whether “individuals with developmental disabilities will truly benefit from the Settlement Agreement.”

DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead did not specifically respond to the judge’s criticism but pointed to the fact that his decision to end the case was based on reviews by experts who found the department should be celebrated because there is “strong evidence that best practices are being followed at an extremely high level” at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center and the St. Peter Forensic Mental Health Program.

“The court’s decision is an important moment for us to recognize that the settlement agreement prompted systemic changes in our services that will continue to impact the lives of people with disabilities in Minnesota,” Harpstead said in a statement, adding that the state continues to develop programs and partnerships to establish better policies and training. “We must continue to adapt and enhance our systems to make Minnesota a better place for people with disabilities.”

Shamus O’Meara, the attorney who filed the lawsuit more than a decade ago, says he understands the judge’s decision to wrap the case after so many years but believes there is still a real need for “ongoing monitoring” of DHS given their “tactics of constantly seeking to avoid their settlement responsibilities.”

The state’s legal team at the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office has consistently fought back against the prolonged oversight, even challenging certain orders at the federal Court of Appeals where it lost last year.

“Had Defendants directed their litigious energy into implementing the Agreement, they may have established a national model,” Frank wrote in his recent order. “Sadly, they did not.”

A spokesperson for the AG’s office declined to comment.

The federal court’s jurisdiction will officially end Oct. 24.

Frank encouraged the state to work with advocates to ensure the settlement does not become an “entirely empty promise.”

“Justice requires no less,” Frank added. “If not, the Court fears that it is not a matter of if, but when, future lawsuits will arise.”

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