A federal appeals court on Friday reversed a judge's order making the state provide apartments and small homes to thousands of mentally ill people, questioning the scope of the order and delaying a resolution to a controversy that even the court acknowledged will go on.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the Albany-based plaintiff _ Disability Advocates Inc. _ lacked standing to bring the claim because it was a non-membership organization with limited interaction with the people it claimed to represent. The nonprofit is contracted to provide services to New York's Protection and Advocacy System.
The ruling takes the 9-year-old case back to the starting block on an issue faced by several other states, including Connecticut and Illinois.
Disability Advocates Executive Director Cliff Zucker said his organization will try to negotiate with state officials "to end the unnecessary institutionalization of adult home residents."
"We will work with New York to solve this problem, hopefully without the need for future litigation," he said, though he left open the possibility that the case could be filed again as a class action.
Disability Advocates filed its lawsuit in 2003 against New York's governor and various state agencies. Messages sent to lawyers representing the state were not immediately returned.
The ruling negates a 2010 order by U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn calling for the state to create 1,500 housing units in New York City over three years, enabling people to leave group homes and live in homes scattered throughout the city.
Garaufis had ruled that the state must provide services to the disabled "in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs," enabling them to interact with people who aren't disabled as much as possible.
The judge said Disability Advocates had proven in a bench trial that virtually all its constituents were qualified to live in "supported housing," including apartments where they could continue to receive needed services.
Although the appeals court tossed out the case without addressing challenges to the merits of Garaufis' ruling, it said the appeals judges "do have concerns about the scope of the proposed remedy" and it acknowledged that the U.S. government has already said it would re-file the lawsuit if Disability Advocates was removed from the case.
The appeals court said the private nonprofit agency, which it repeatedly referred to as "DAI," could not sue over violations of the Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals Act of 1986, created to protect the rights of individuals with mental illness. The court also rejected an effort by the U.S. government to join the case six years after it began.
"Tellingly, there is scant evidence in the record that the individuals with mental illness whom DAI purports to represent have the power to elect its directors, make budget decisions, or influence DAI's activities or litigation strategies," the appeals court wrote. "Finally, the record does not establish that DAI ever notified its `constituents' or any of their legal guardians that it was filing this suit purportedly on their behalf."
The 2nd Circuit said Disability Advocates could still provide representation to individuals with mental illness and litigate those cases in the names of those individuals but could not bring a lawsuit on behalf of the entire class.
And the court added: "We are not unsympathetic to the concern that our disposition will delay the resolution of this controversy and impose substantial burdens and transaction costs on the parties, their counsel, and the courts."
The litigation has put in the spotlight the adult home system that emerged nationwide after people with mental illness in the 1960s and 1970s were moved out of large, regimented institutions. New York moved most patients out of state-run psychiatric hospitals, settling them into community or profit-making adult homes.
According to the court documents, the state has 380 adult homes; New York City has 44. Some house more than 120 to 200 people.
During the trial, witnesses testified that the large homes were sometimes more restrictive than the mental institutions they replaced. They told of lines of 200 residents waiting for medications and residents having virtually no privacy. In addition, witnesses said, the homes foster "learned helplessness" because residents are not allowed to cook, clean, do laundry or manage their own finances.
In his release, Zucker included a comment from 64-year-old Margueritte Wilkens, who is living in a group home after health problems interrupted her career as a health educator for community health centers in New York City.
"I'm very disappointed about the decision," she said. "I had high hopes of returning to a normal life in the community."