Thursday, March 11, 2010

Disability housing decision in New York suggests new era for Independent Living Movement

by Jenn Robertson

In September, the New York Federal District Court ruled that Governor Paterson, together with the New York State Department of Health and the New York State Office of Mental Health and their commissioners, were in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”). Last week, that same Court determined that the remedial proposal submitted by these Defendants was highly inadequate, and instead adopted the Plaintiff’s proposed plan for developing integrated supported housing for New York City’s residents with mental illnesses.

The September decision was in itself a huge victory for Plaintiffs Disability Advocates, Inc. , (“DAI”) a protection and advocacy organization representing the near 4,300 individuals with mental illness residing in New York City “adult homes”. The extensive opinion held that these Plaintiffs were not receiving services in the “most integrated setting” appropriate to their needs, as required by the integration mandate in Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the RA. In awarding the Plaintiffs the prospective permanent injunctive relief they requested, the Court gave the Defendants the opportunity to propose its own remedial plan in accordance with the findings of fact and conclusions of law in the Court’s September decision. On 1 March, in an extremely critical decision, the Court found the Defendant’s proposed plan to be “egregiously deficient.”

Specifically, although the Court found virtually all of the 4,300 constituents to be appropriate for a more integrated setting, the Defendant’s proposed construction of supported housing units over the next 5 years would only have capacity for 1,000 individuals. Though the state again argued that there would be a financial shortfall due to the economic recession, that construction of more units would result in an inability to meet the needs of other populations, and that there would be difficulty finding affordable housing units within the time constraints, the Court responded that these had been addressed and rejected in it’s September opinion. The Defendants were chided for rearguing their case and ignoring the Court’s findings in crafting the remedial proposal. As a result, the Court adopted the Plaintiff’s proposed remedial plan, with some modification. The adopted plan provides for the construction of 1,500 supported housing units per year until there are enough to house all those who desire supported housing and no fewer than 4,500 units (to account for those diagnosed with mental illness in the future). The plan also creates an “in-reach” program, to be conducted by housing providers, to comprehensively educate residents about their choices of services and support and how to be successful in a supported housing environment.

Though this decision is merely persuasive in the Ireland and International courts, it is important to note the similarities between the interpretation of the integrated setting mandate in the ADA, and the independent living section of the UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities. The UN Convention Section 19 recommends the availability of a range of housing to individuals with disabilities with the goal of inclusion into the community, while the New York Court’s decision mandates construction of such facilities and placement of mentally disabled individuals in the most inclusive environment. It is an important statement by the American court as to best practices in disability law, and will no doubt make an important impact on future disability housing decisions.