Lawsuit resolution hailed as disability landmark

Last modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Nearly 15 years after a lawsuit pitted advocates for the disabled against the state in a quest to move people with developmental disabilities out of nursing homes back into community settings, the parties are no longer adversaries.

They celebrated together in a federal courtroom this week as a judge ruled that the goal had been achieved.

Advocates say the case known as Rolland v. Patrick has been cited as a model in similar class action lawsuits around the country.

“The judge made several rulings that not only defined this case, but have reverberated throughout the United States and have been adopted by other courts,” said Steven J. Schwartz, litigation director for the Center for Public Representation, which has offices on Green Street in Northampton.

Among the rulings made by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman that Schwartz said represent the legacy of the case are orders that require developmentally disabled people living in private nursing homes to be placed in the least restrictive community setting possible — and for those who remain in private nursing homes to receive a standard of care that is on par with what is provided at public facilities.

“The same standard of care applies to the public and private,” Schwartz said. “This is a real dramatic ruling and if applied fully in every state would dramatically transform the way nursing homes are run.”

The class action lawsuit was filed in 1998 on behalf of 1,800 people with developmental disabilities. At issue was a practice of housing disabled people with medical issues in nursing homes, essentially segregating them from society. Advocates claimed they were being improperly cared for in 290 nursing homes around the state, rather than less restrictive community settings, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Schwartz said since the suit was filed, about 1,800 people have moved out of nursing homes under the case.

“Their families are overjoyed with the transformation that has happened to their living situations and their personal lives,” he said.

Schwartz and others involved in the lawsuit said the case was highly charged initially, with advocates for the disabled going head to head with the state, leading to mounds of court filings, many motion hearings, and multiple appeals.

But in recent years the tenor became much more cooperative and collaborative.

“There has been really a new day,” Schwartz said.

Lyn Rucker, the court monitor appointed in 2007 by Neiman to evaluate whether his rulings were being carried out by the state, said she was impressed by how things changed since she started.

Early on, she said, negotiations to improve conditions for the clients named in the suit were tense. But gradually they smoothed out and became more collaborative, she said.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Rucker said she visited at least113 nursing homes, 41 other service providers such as day treatment programs, and interviewed clients, family members and care providers in her work as the “eyes and ears of the judge on the ground.”

Rucker said she noticed a difference under the leadership of state Department of Developmental Services Commissioner Elin M. Howe, who was appointed in 2007.

“With that leadership, they appropriated an enormous amount of money to ensure that community programs had the resources they needed to expand residential services to get people out of nursing homes,” Rucker said.

Rucker also credited Neiman with the successful closure of the lawsuit.

“Neiman was absolutely pivotal. He has been actively engaged in this case since the beginning and it hasn’t always been smooth,” Rucker said. But in recent years, she said, things changed significantly.

“A lot of the adversaries came to the table and their focus was on the class members, and, really, the contentiousness went away,” she said.

The lead plaintiff in the case, Loretta Rolland, now 71, was moved out of a nursing home in 2002 into St. Michael’s House on State Street in Northampton, where she lived in an apartment for about five years.

Rolland later moved to Holden, where she lives in her own apartment within a group home and volunteers in the community. She was among those celebrating in court this week.

“She represents a group of people that Massachusetts can proudly say are no longer confined to segregated and inappropriate services in nursing homes and other states are actively looking at Massachusetts as a guide to very good, exemplary practices,” Rucker said.

In court Wednesday, Neiman dismissed the lawsuit and pulled himself off the case, ruling the case no longer needs court oversight.


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