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Pro Bono Clients Defeat New York State’s Motion to Dismiss Claims Challenging Release of Former Prisoners With Mental Illness to Homeless Shelters and Psychiatric Institutions

Paul, Weiss and co-counsel secured a victory in M.G. v. Cuomo, a putative class action challenging systemic deficiencies in New York’s community-based services for formerly incarcerated people with serious mental illness at risk of homelessness. The federal district court denied the state government’s motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiffs’ allegations of future risk of institutionalization as a result of the lack of community-based mental health housing were sufficient to establish standing and to state a claim for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

Filed in 2019 in the Southern District of New York by the firm, the Legal Aid Society and Disability Rights New York, the complaint alleges that the state has failed to supply the community-based housing and supportive services former prisoners with serious mental illness need for successful reentry. The lawsuit was initially brought in January 2019 to challenge state officials’ practice of holding people with serious mental illness in prison past their release dates due to the lack of housing and supportive services in their communities. Last August, the plaintiffs brought new claims after state officials began to release people who were eligible for community-based mental health housing and supportive services into homeless shelters or psychiatric institutions instead. This practice violates the ADA and the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. and its progeny, deprives people of the housing and services they need to successfully reenter society and further entrenches the “prison-to-homeless-shelter pipeline.”

In a decision rejecting the state’s motion to dismiss claims in the original complaint last year, the court held that the plaintiffs stated claims under the Eighth Amendment, the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act; that their claims were not moot; and that exhaustion requirements under the Prison Litigation Reform Act did not apply to a sub-class of plaintiffs incarcerated beyond the maximum expiration date of their sentence and who therefore were not “prisoners” at the time of filing.

Last February, the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest urging the court to allow the new claims to go forward and advancing a broad reading of the ADA. The DOJ accused the defendants of invoking “the discriminatory and pernicious stereotypes that the ADA prohibits by blaming the individuals with disabilities for having the very disabilities that put them at risk for institutionalization,” and argued that the state cannot evade the requirements of federal disability anti-discrimination statutes merely because it relies on local agencies to carry out the programs it administers.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel issued a bench ruling denying the state’s motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ new claims in full. The court recognized that the plaintiffs properly stated a claim by alleging that the state’s failure to administer community-based mental health housing and supportive services places them in segregated settings and at risk of institutionalization, in violation of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. Though the court stopped shy of labeling the state’s arguments as “ableist,” it commented that the defendants should be wary of blaming the risk of recidivism on the plaintiffs’ mental health rather than the lack of community-based housing and supporting services, noting that it would not blame a cancer patient’s re-hospitalization on the patient if the state failed to provide chemotherapy.

The Paul, Weiss team is led by litigation partner Walter Ricciardi and includes associates Crystal Parker, Emily Vance, Chantalle Hanna, Samuel Margolis and Cara Hume.

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