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Georgia Court Says Class Action Lawsuit Seeking Disability Services Will Proceed

August 23, 2013
Source: Courthouse News Service

Deaf people with behavioral or developmental disabilities can sue as [a] class over Georgia's failures in public mental health care access, a federal judge ruled.

Renita Belton and Matthew Erickson, two deaf adults with severe mental and developmental disorders, had sued the state in March 2010 on behalf of all Georgians in need of mental health care who could not benefit from state-funded services because of the state's inability to accommodate them. They claimed that they had been unable to find deaf-appropriate group home care, leaving them with no choice but to live at home with family members who are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).

The Northern District of Georgia certified their class in March 2011.

One year later, the court ruled that Georgia had failed to provide deaf Georgians with meaningful access to public mental health care services such as group home care. The ruling also noted that Georgia faced a severe shortage of ASL-fluent mental health practitioners and failed to reimburse health care providers for the cost of interpreters.

U.S. District Judge Richard Story referred the case to mediation and ordered Georgia to take certain steps to remedy violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

After the court found Georgia liable under the ADA and Section 504, the state asked it to decertify the class and dismiss the action for lack of standing. Georgia argued that Belton and Erickson were not adequate class representatives as to the claim of cost-associated denial of access to interpreters.

Story sided with the plaintiffs last week, reminding the state that Belton and Erickson had standing to raise ADA and Section 504 violations claims. Belton and Erickson are adequate class representatives because they have been denied access to state-provided mental health care services such as group home living because of the state's failure to accommodate the deaf [community], the ruling states. Their claims are also typical of the class members' claims and arise from the same conduct, according to the order.

"It is immaterial that the named plaintiffs and other members of the plaintiff class may have been deprived of access to the state's mental health care services in different ways or through different means (e.g., through a lack of deaf-appropriate group homes or ASL interpreters)," Story wrote. (Parentheses in ruling).

Georgia has also sought to stay the implementation of the court's remedy order, and the plaintiffs in turn moved to refer that request to the monitor.

Judge Story refused to dismiss the action, and gave Georgia six days to answer the plaintiffs' motion.

Court Order: Benton and Erickson v. State of Georgia (PDF 11 pages) (August 13, 2013)

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