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Pro Bono Q&A: Landmark ADA Settlement Offers Hope for Individuals With Mental Illness

Litigation partner Andrew Gordon led a team of Paul, Weiss lawyers who secured a landmark settlement in a New York federal court for a class of individuals with mental illness residing in adult homes in New York City. In approving the settlement, Eastern District Judge Nicholas Garaufis noted "[t]he court makes special note of [Paul, Weiss]'s outstanding and comprehensive advocacy in the DAI case."   

In this Q&A, Andrew shares some details about the firm's work on the settlement, and its significance.  

Along with Andrew, the current Paul, Weiss team includes associates Geoffrey Chepiga, David Leimbach and Robert O'Loughlin, staff attorney Francine Murray and paralegals Erin Connell and Michael Hilgendorf. The 2009 trial team included Andrew Gordon, Anne Raish, Jonathan Bolton, Gayle Gerson, Ankush Khardori, Sandee Sheldon, Donna Lee, Francine Murray and former paralegal (now associate) Brette Tannenbaum. Disability Advocates, Inc., the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, MFY Legal Services and the Urban Justice Center served as co-counsel. Paul, Weiss worked closely with the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.

Q:         The Paul Weiss team and our initial client, Disability Advocates, Inc. (known as "DAI" - now known as Disability Rights New York) - an organization established to protect the rights of children and adults with disabilities - filed a lawsuit challenging New York State's confinement of people with mental illness in adult homes.  Tell us about the scope of the lawsuit and the relief that you sought.

A:         In 2003, we filed a federal lawsuit against the State of New York, which then had a policy of sending people with serious mental disabilities from psychiatric hospitals to places called "adult homes."  Adult homes are basically state-sanctioned institutions, like the hospitals these individuals were being released from, where these individuals are warehoused, where they have severely limited integration with the larger community.

So, we brought the lawsuit alleging violations of the American with Disabilities Act (or the "ADA").  Based on a Supreme Court decision called Olmstead, which set out a three-part test to examine whether a state was complying with the mandates of the ADA in this type of case, we argued that by placing these individuals in adult homes, New York State was clearly failing to meet its obligations.

Q:         What was life like for people in adult homes?

A:         In one word, horrible.  Adult homes are large, institutional facilities with hundreds of people who get sub-standard care and treatment.  Residents are forced to have a roommate, so they have little privacy.  They do not have the freedom to come and go as they please.  They are completely isolated from the communities they live in.  And, once someone is placed in an adult home, they have no ability to get out because the state does not offer any meaningful avenue for another living arrangement.

The New York Times did a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on these homes and how gruesome they really are, and that series was a motivation for this lawsuit.  One of the things The Times observed was that people who reside in adult homes have a much higher mortality rate than people who do not - that is how bad the treatment and care are in these places. In fact, one resident compared living in an adult home to living on an animal farm. 

And the really sad fact is that most of the individuals living in adult homes, if not all, are really high-functioning individuals who are capable of living independently in their communities with the right support.  The state has just failed them in this regard.

Q:         There were other state agencies that had examined these facilities and found them wanting. Specifically, the Office of Mental Health of the State of New York, the agency that is administering these homes, acknowledged that they were not appropriate settings for people with mental illness, and the Department of Health had documented numerous violations. Was that useful legally in the case?

A:         Yes, the state knew that people with mental illness should not be in these facilities. The facilities were substandard in terms of the care and adequacy. That the state had  acknowledged that  was very useful in our ability to make our case, and the court found that evidence extremely compelling.

Q:         Were adult home residents involved in the trial?

A:         At the trial in 2009, our star witnesses were the residents themselves, who described how bleak an existence it was to live in these places. It was heart-wrenching testimony, and I think everybody was quite moved by it.  It was hard not to be.

More recently, after we re-filed the case as a class-action on behalf of all residents in impacted adult homes in New York City and reached this landmark settlement, over 200 residents spoke in favor of the settlement at the fairness hearing or submitted written support. Many described their feelings of confinement and unhappiness in living in the adult homes.  They described in graphic terms the often dangerous and unsanitary living conditions they faced, the lack of privacy, and the inability to enjoy the simple things we often take for granted like being alone with family and friends, having a moment of privacy, or even choosing what they wanted to eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Q:         How did you prepare the residents to testify?

A:         The large Paul, Weiss team worked with the residents to prepare them to testify.  The residents are remarkably like you or me.  You would not have known they have serious issues. They are not dangerous to society.  One of the toughest things I ever had to do was tell some of them that the Second Circuit had reversed the trial court's decision on a technicality. 

Q:         Let's talk about the Second Circuit decision for a minute, because there was a standing issue that put a speed bump on the road to victory, right?

A:         Yes. The district court held that our client, DAI, had standing to bring the case under what are known as PAIMI statutes.  Federal law required every state to establish an advocacy organization, such as our client, DAI, for the mentally ill, recognizing that the mentally ill rarely are in a position to bring claims on their own behalf.  We thought this Congressional grant was sufficient to give DAI standing to bring these ADA claims   The Second Circuit disagreed, however.  But, that decision was just a speed bump, a serious speed bump, but just a speed bump.  As we do all the time here at Paul, Weiss, we adjusted our strategy and brought the case for a second time, this time as a class action. Ultimately, rather than litigating the case again, the state did the right thing and sat down with us and our clients to work out a plan for moving forward.  And I give them enormous credit for making that decision.

Q:         Can you explain how the class action solved the standing problem?

A:         The court decided that an organization such as DAI did not have Article III standing to pursue claims on behalf of adult home residents.  What the class action vehicle did, under the federal rules, was to enable us to establish a class of residents of adult homes that could bring the claims directly, as opposed to DAI. 

Q:         Does the result yield precedential value?

A:         Yes and no.  No, in the sense that the trial court's decision ultimately was overturned by the Second Circuit on standing grounds.  But, I think our strategy provides a really useful roadmap for how to litigate this type of case, bring it to trial and prevail.  New York is not alone, nor was it alone before the settlement, in how it approached treatment for the seriously mentally ill.  A lot of states, unfortunately, think the easiest thing to do is to warehouse people in institutional-type settings that yield no future for the residents.  While I do not think anybody will be citing to the DAI decision, since it was overturned, I do think that it is a useful roadmap for those who want to pursue these claims in other states.

Q:         Can you tell us a little bit about what your clients, these residents, can look forward to as a result of the settlement?  How will their lives change?

A:         The short answer is they have a future.  Everyone in the class is going to be given an option to move into smaller community housing, with meaningful support services so they can live effectively on their own, and have freedoms they did not otherwise have in the adult homes.  I think the residents who choose to move will have a quality of life they did not have while at the adult homes.  It should be very exciting to see how their lives change.  And I have no doubt it will be for the better.

Q:         What has the case meant to you and the team of lawyers working on it?

A:         That is a hard question to answer.  I think the settlement will change the lives of these individuals.  It gives them a future they can look forward to.  It is not often in our job that you get to take an injustice and remedy it.  But, with the help of many, we did just that.  It is hard to put into words what that means, but I can say it will be a highlight of my career and, I expect, for the many people who worked on the case. 

It was also special because this case exemplifies what is best about Paul, Weiss.  Really, why I came to the firm almost 15 years ago.  Over the course of this litigation, which is now over a decade old, over 100 Paul, Weiss partners, counsel, associates, staff attorneys, summer associates and paralegals  worked on the case.   The firm put in enormous resources, time and effort to achieve what is really a remarkable victory for these individuals.  We never gave up.  I remember the discussions after the Second Circuit reversed, when we were potentially facing another decade of litigation with the state.  And there was never any wavering.  We were in this for the long haul.  And, seeing the court recognize that dedication in its opinion, when it took "special note of [the] firm's outstanding and comprehensive advocacy in the DAI case," made this all even more special to me.

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