D.S.C.: preliminary injunction to prevent institutionalization

Adopting the magistrate’s Report and Recommendations, the District Court for South Carolina issued a preliminary injunction to stop the reduction or termination of medical and personal-care services for three individuals with mental disabilities.

The court held that the case was ripe, even though the state had voluntarily agreed not to reduce their services during the pendency of the state appeals process.  Injunctive relief was warranted based on likely irreparable harm from the threat of institutionalization.  Success on the merits of the claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was based on evidence that the cost of services in the community was less than the cost of providing such services in an institution.  Peter B. v. Sanford, 2011 WL 824584 (D.S.C. Mar. 7, 2011).  The judge was nominated by Obama.  The court’s relatively brief opinion makes repeated references to the much lengthier magistrate’s report, which can be found at 2010 WL 5912259 (Nov. 24, 2010).

The court rejected the contention that the voluntary continuation of benefits defeated the ripeness of the claim.  The court stated that the plaintiffs’ “ability to seek redress and more stable resolution through the court remains independent of the vagaries of Defendants. The evidence in the record, as thoroughly recited by the Magistrate Judge, demonstrates that the threat of institutionalization is very real and Plaintiffs’ claims are ripe for adjudication now.”

Turning to the preliminary injunction, the court noted that, pursuant to Winter v. NRDC, 555 U.S. 7 (2008), all four requirements for a preliminary injunction must be met.  The state disputed the likelihood of irreparable harm, because the plaintiffs had not actually gone into institutions.  The court was persuaded by affidavits from the plaintiffs’ doctors and caregivers attesting that service reductions would lead to the need for institutional care.  The court held that the risk of institutionalization was “sufficiently likely” and the harm of institutionalization could be prevented before the effects of the service reductions were certain.

Next the court addressed the likelihood of success on the merits.  The court explained that the ADA prohibits discrimination through unnecessary segregation and requires community-based treatment, taking into account the resources of the state.  The court credited plaintiffs’ “substantial evidence” that the costs of providing services in institutions were far greater than providing those services in the community.  The court concluded that the evidence in the record at this point in the litigation supported the plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits.

The court quickly dismissed as unsubstantiated the defendants’ claim that they would suffer harm from the injunction.  The court also found that the public interest would not be harmed by requiring defendants to do what they had already voluntarily agreed to do pending resolution of the matter.

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