Federal court oversight of disability matters will continue into 2020

Federal court oversight of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) actions and policies affecting Minnesotans with disabilities will continue into 2020, as will continued monitoring to ensure compliance with the state’s Olmstead Plan and a 2011 court settlement. U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank June 17 issued a 41-page order on the matter, in response to an April status conference.

Oversight was to end December 4. But in the order, Frank stated, “… the court has determined that investigation and review is required on several compliance issues before the court can equitably end its jurisdiction over this matter.”

Jurisdiction will now continue at least until September 15, 2020. All court-mandated reporting requirements will continue.

But it’s clear that oversight won’t go on indefinitely, if Frank has his way. The judge has asked the two sides in the ongoing dispute to get together at the federal courthouse for a roundtable meeting. The meeting is intended to develop a plan to address all remaining steps needed to successfully implement the agreement before the court terminates its jurisdiction on the matter. A date for that meeting hasn’t been set.

“After years of litigation, the time is now for those invested in the equitable treatment of persons with developmental disabilities to work together and develop a plan to ensure that the Jensen lawsuit is not left an empty promise,” the order stated.

In a footnote, Frank added, “Unfortunately, the equitable treatment of persons with developmental disabilities in the State of Minnesota is not confined to the Jensen lawsuit. The court hopes that state leadership may develop a comprehensive solution to the global issues that exist.”

Frank and Magistrate Judge Becky Thorson in April heard DHS’s request for oversight to end, along with progress updates on both the settlement and Olmstead. State officials have cited the ongoing costs and time of oversight for both matters. Attorneys for the families involved in the lawsuit want oversight to continue and want further issues addressed before they are satisfied.

DHS Commissioner Tony Lourey issued a statement after the ruling. “Minnesota has long been a leader in services for people with disabilities and continues to look for opportunities to help people live as independently a possible and have choices in their lives. Minnesota’s system of services for people with disabilities is always developing,” he said. “The Olmstead
Plan is moving us in the right direction and keeping us focused on working collaboratively across state agencies so that people with disabilities can live and work in regular community settings and have opportunities to participate in the community. This issue is something we remain deeply committed to. We are making very real progress, which we will continue.”

While the ruling pleased those who want continue court oversight, neither side got everything it wanted. The ongoing legal dispute stems from a class action lawsuit that began in 2009 and was settled in late 2011. The lawsuit was prompted by excessive use of restraint of residents of the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) in Cambridge. Parents of three METO residents sought changes in the facility practices, as well as monetary damages for their children and for other METO residents who had been restrained or secluded there.

The Jensen case covered about 300 people who had been secluded or restrained while at METO from July 1, 1997 through May 11, 2011. METO residents were restrained, secluded, and punished for infractions that were as seemingly minor as touching a pizza box. The case against METO was the catalyst in getting the Olmstead plan work underway in Minnesota.

Since then there have been twice-yearly conferences and court updates on Olmstead and the Jensen settlement, to present progress and have concerns raised. The updates also provide a chance for the court to seek data as requested, on issues related to both matters.

One key point of dispute continues to be allegations of abusive conduct at state-operated and licensed facilities, and the families’ call for elimination of restraints. This is seen as fundamental to the original court settlement.

Another key point in Frank’s ruling is the use of the court monitor. A monitor was appointed by the court because DHS failed to engage an external reviewer to meet reporting requirements. Both sides agreed to the monitor, but recently DHS raised objections. Frank has agreed that the current monitor can step aside but reserves the right to bring him back as needed for external review, to avoid further litigation.

The court is requiring DHS to have subject matter experts to review and report on practices with restraints by a series of deadlines this year. The order sets a series of dates to address this issue starting in August.

Another issue to be addressed in the weeks ahead center on the scope of the settlement agreement and whether its provisions apply to the Minnesota Security Hospital and Anoka Regional Treatment Center. The order also covers next steps for issues of staff training, positive supports and the need for and current availability of treatment homes.

The order denied plaintiffs’ request for an evidentiary hearing, pending receipt of the subject expert’s report.