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Third Circuit Permits Institutionalized Persons to Challenge Proposed Class Action Settlement Agreement

In December 2012, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania had abused its discretion by denying intervention as of right pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2) to institutionalized persons with “mental retardation” (IPs/MR) who oppose a proposed class action settlement agreement that other IPs/MR had reached with Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW).

The latter group of IPs/MR had filed suit in 2009 alleging that DPW was violating the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act (RA) by failing to offer and provide them with the opportunity to receive services in integrated community settings. Two years later, on cross motions for summary judgment, the district court entered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs (and other similarly situated), declaring that DPW was not in compliance with the integration mandates of the ADA and the RA.

In May 2011, the plaintiffs and DPW finalized a proposed Settlement Agreement, which included the establishment of an annual assessment protocol to create, maintain, and update a Planning List consisting of all IPs/MR identified as not opposed to community placement, and a viable Integration Plan providing community placements to a minimum number of IPs/MR on the Planning List annually.

Objections to the proposed Settlement Agreement were submitted by, among others, a group of IPs/MR who sought to intervene on the ground that, insofar as they were opposed to community placement, their interest diverged from those of the IPs/MR who had filed the suit. The district court denied their motions to intervene, reasoning that because the certified class expressly excluded those IPs/MR who oppose community placement, their right to choose institutionalized placement would not be affected by the Settlement Agreement.

On appeal, the Third Circuit took special note of the fact that the case before it implicated the health, safety, and welfare of more than a thousand highly vulnerable individuals, most of whom are non-verbal and/or unable to understand more than the simplest of commands/messages. While the interests of many of these IPs/MR are represented by guardians or close relatives, approximately 20% of IPs/MR have no one to advocate for them.

The Third Circuit expressed concern that “a resident whose activities are so severe that he or she is incapable of expressing, in some fashion, where he or she wishes to live – and who otherwise lacks a guardian or involved family member or his or her guardian or involved family member fails to express opposition to community placement – must be placed on the Planning List.” The Court acknowledged that the proposed interveners did not fall into this default category at the present time (because their interests were being vigorously represent by “next friends”), but recognized that could change if/when an “aging guardian or involved family member dies or otherwise becomes unable to express his or her opposition” on an IP/MR’s behalf.

Based on this and other considerations, the Third Circuit held that the proposed interveners had a sufficient interest in the remedy stage of the litigation that they met the requirements for intervention as of right under Fed. R. Civ. P. 24(a)(2).

The Court recommended the case to the district court with instructions to grant the appellant’s motions to intervene in the remedy stage of the litigation, as well as to permit appellants, as proper interveners, to challenge the Settlement Agreement and to seek decertification of the class. See: Benjamin v. Dep't of Pub. Welfare of Pa., 701 F.3d 938 (3d Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Benjamin v. Dep't of Pub. Welfare of Pa.