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Supreme Court Upholds Right to Integration in Olmstead Case
June 23, 1999

On June 22, 1999, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Olmstead v. L.C., holding that the unnecessary segregation of individuals with disabilities may constitute discrimination based on disability. You can find the opinion at Cornell University School of Law. We are very pleased about the decision, although the court did set a number of limits on the scope of the integration mandate.

In a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, the court affirmed the Eleventh Circuit's holding that unjustified isolation of individuals with disabilities is properly regarded as discrimination based on disability. The court held that unjustified segregation in institutions is discrimination not only because it perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that people with disabilities are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life, but also because confinement in an institution severely curtails everyday life activities, such as family relations, social contacts, work, educational advancement and cultural enrichment.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court held, the states' need to maintain a range of facilities for the care and treatment of individuals with diverse mental disabilities must be recognized. The court held that the Eleventh Circuit's remand instruction to consider the cost of providing the litigants with community based services in light of the state's mental health budget was unduly restrictive. In evaluating a state's fundamental alteration defense, courts must consider not only the cost of providing community based care to the litigants, but also the range of services the state provides to others with mental disabilities and its obligation to mete out those services in an equitable manner. If the state shows that immediate relief for the plaintiffs would be inequitable "given the responsibility the state has undertaken for the care and treatment of a large and diverse population of persons with mental disabilities," it will have met the fundamental alteration defense.

Additionally, the court held that if the state demonstrates that it has a "comprehensive, effectively working plan for placing qualified persons with mental disabilities in less restrictive settings, and a waiting list that move[s] at a reasonable pace not controlled by the State's endeavors to keep its institutions fully populated" an individual cannot skip to the top of the waiting list by filing a lawsuit to obtain community services; such a move would not be a reasonable modification. Finally, the court held that a state may generally rely on the "reasonable assessments of its own professional" in determining whether an individual meets the essential eligibility requirements for a community-based program.

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