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Thursday, July 23, 2009 05:04 pm

Disability rights lawsuit heads in new direction

No longer class action, advocates seek community services for nine individuals

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Lead plaintiff Stanley Ligas (center)

A federal judge recently hindered efforts to allow more people with developmental disabilities to live in the community rather than in institutions.

U.S. District Judge James Holderman ordered Ligas v. Maram, a civil lawsuit filed against the state in 2005 by nine people with developmental disabilities who say institutions are their only housing option, to proceed as an individual lawsuit rather than as a class action.

Advocates from Equip for Equality, a statewide protection and advocacy organization for people with disabilities, preferred a class action lawsuit that would have represented the majority of people with developmental disabilities in Illinois.

However, Barry Taylor, the legal advocacy director for Equip for Equality and lead counsel for plaintiffs in the case, says the outcome of Ligas v. Maram could still change the state’s policies. According to the organization’s statistics, Illinois ranks 51st in the United States and the District of Columbia in serving the disabled in integrated settings. Illinois currently houses 6,000 people with developmental disabilities in 250 private, state-funded, 16-plus bed institutions across the state and rarely offers community placement.

“The judge has not made a ruling on the underlying issue,” Taylor says. “We believe the state is failing to provide community services to people who want community services.”

Holderman also denied a proposed consent decree previously agreed to by both Illinois officials and plaintiffs in the case. The settlement would have required all people living in institutions to receive evaluations and the choice to move to their own apartments or five-or-six-person group homes [see “Lawsuit opens up more housing options,” Dec. 18].

Even though Holderman initially certified the lawsuit as class action in 2006, he reversed his ruling based on objections heard at a July 1 fairness hearing. People with developmental disabilities or their family members submitted more than 2,500 written objections to the proposed consent decree; more than 30 publicly protested the terms of the settlement.

Many of those in opposition, Holderman explained in his July 7 ruling, were neither eligible for, nor desired, the move from an institution to a community setting. The judge also ruled that the proposed consent decree overreached its objective — especially the provision that would establish annual evaluations for all developmentally disabled individuals who live in institutions. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not currently require such evaluations.

Taylor disagrees with the recent ruling, saying that the proposed consent decree specifically stated that individuals who wished to remain in institutions would not be forced to move.

Plaintiffs in the case filed the lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, alleging that “unnecessary institutionalization” violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. They’ll review their options and meet with state officials to decide how to move forward.

“We’re committed to making changes for people with developmental disabilities,” Taylor says, “and we’re hoping the state is still committed despite the judge’s ruling.”

DHS spokesperson Tom Green said he was unable to comment on the pending litigation.

A status hearing for the individual plaintiffs’ claims will be held on July 30.