U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
July 2004 -- Issue Two
is a monthly update about the Civil Rights Divisions activities in the area of disability rights. The Division enforces laws prohibiting discrimination based on disability in employment, housing, access to businesses serving the public, access to government programs and services including voting and public transportation, and unconstitutional conditions in institutions of confinement.
In this Issue:
Did you know that there are more than 50 million people with disabilities in the United States? And that they have $175 billion in discretionary spending power? And that in 2003 they spent $35 billion in restaurants nationally and spent an additional $3.6 billion on a combination of work and leisure travel?
In June 2004, the Justice Department settled a complaint alleging that a privately owned childcare center in Millville, New Jersey, had refused enrollment in a summer program to a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
The complaint arose early last summer when the girls mother called the owner-director of the center to inquire about openings in its summer program. The daughter had just finished first grade and had been attending public school and daycare since the age of eighteen months. She required no additional assistance with daily care or age-appropriate activities, and no modifications to the centers activities or programs were anticipated except that staff members would need to be generally knowledgeable that she had occasional petit mal seizures, after which she would be very tired or fall asleep.
Under the settlement agreement, the center agreed to adopt a nondiscrimination policy and to publicize that policy in its handbooks for parents and employees. The center also agreed to provide training to management and staff on the obligations of child care providers concerning the rights of individuals with disabilities. Lastly, it agreed to pay the mother, on behalf of her daughter, $4,000 in compensatory damages. The Department will monitor compliance with the terms of this agreement.
On June 17, 2004, the Department filed a lawsuit against the owner and operator of several group homes for persons with disabilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Departments complaint alleges that the owner-operator subjected his mentally disabled residents to pervasive sexual harassment.
The type of unrelenting harassment and sexual exploitation alleged in this case is appalling and unacceptable, said R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. No American should suffer this type of abuse, particularly in the sanctity of their home. We remain committed to combating discrimination in housing.
The basic right to obtain housing without reprisals based on ones sex or disability is fundamental, said U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias. We cannot, and will not, tolerate a practice of using ones position as a landlord to abuse or extort sexual favors from tenants.
Specifically, the Department alleges that over a six-year period the owner-operator subjected his residents to unwanted sexual touching. The government further alleges that he threatened to punish his residents, through deprivation of medications and other services, if they refused to submit to him.
On June 15, 2004, the Justice Department announced an agreement with the City of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to settle a lawsuit alleging discrimination against disabled veterans. The Department initiated its investigation after referral from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is one of the primary sources of funding for the proposed facility.
The American Legion Department of Pennsylvania Housing for Homeless Veterans Corporation wanted to establish and operate a facility to house up to 30 homeless veterans in an old school building, located in a residential neighborhood in Johnstown. The building had most recently been used as a housing facility for homeless veterans.
Even though the proposed use was identical to the preceding one and the Citys Planning Commission had recommended approval, the City Council denied the American Legions application based on strong neighborhood opposition. At City Council meetings, area residents expressed fears, typical in cases involving facilities for persons with disabilities, that the veterans, because of their disabilities, would endanger neighborhood children, commit crimes, and otherwise make the neighborhood unsafe. In unanimously rejecting the American Legions application, some City Council members indicated that their votes were in response to citizens concerns.
After the Department filed suit, the City Council rescinded its denial of the American Legions application and voted unanimously to issue the zoning permit. The proposed consent order enjoins the City from discriminating on the basis of disability in housing, requires the City to pay $82,500 in damages to the American Legion and a $15,000 civil penalty to the United States, and mandates that certain city employees receive training on the provisions of the Fair Housing Act.
On June 21, 2004, the Department sued the architects, engineers, developers, and owners responsible for designing, constructing, and operating the McGregor Village Apartments in Wilton, New York. The Department charges that the defendants, despite repeated warnings from town officials that the complex violated the accessibility provisions of the Fair Housing Act, proceeded with the construction and later failed to make appropriate reasonable accommodations.
Among other things, each of the complexs 106 ground-floor apartments has two steps leading to the front door, which is the only entrance to the unit; doors in the units are too narrow for wheelchairs; electrical outlets and thermostats are positioned beyond the reach of people in wheelchairs; and kitchens and bathrooms do not have sufficient space to allow people in wheelchairs to use them.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development referred the case to the Justice Department. The original complainant, who uses a wheelchair, has been unable to fully enjoy her apartment or the complexs common use areas and continues to be severely limited by the complexs architectural barriers. In filing suit on behalf of the complainant, the Department added a pattern or practice claim on behalf of other persons who may have been injured by the defendants discrimination.
On June 16, 2004, the Department entered into an agreement regarding conditions of resident care and treatment in the nursing home units of the Banks-Jackson-Commerce Medical Center and Nursing Home (BJC) in Commerce, Georgia. The agreement resolves an investigation that began in June 2001 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
BJC is a public nursing home operated by the Banks-Jackson-Commerce Hospital and Nursing Home and Medical Center Authority on behalf of the counties of Banks and Jackson and the city of Commerce, Georgia. The nursing home cares for approximately 160 residents, the vast majority of whom are elderly.
The investigation identified numerous civil rights violations at the nursing home. Under the terms of the agreement, BJC is required to correct each of the deficiencies identified by the investigation. The agreement requires BJC to: provide a safe environment for residents; provide adequate medical and nursing care; provide adequate nutritional services; improve its restraint practices; improve its psychotropic medication practice; and provide adequate therapeutic activities for residents. The agreement also requires BJC to ensure that residents are served in the most integrated setting appropriate to meet their needs in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The staff and officials of BJC have cooperated with the Department throughout the course of the investigation and have committed to continued cooperation as the facility proceeds to improve conditions at the nursing home.
On June 7, 2004, the Department filed a lawsuit against Terrell County, Georgia, for systemic constitutional violations at the Terrell County Jail. In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, the Department alleges that Terrell County has failed to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care for Jail detainees. The suit was filed under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) a law that gives the United States authority to file a lawsuit when a state or county engages in a pattern or practice that systemically violates the federal rights of institutionalized persons. In addition to the claim about mental health care, the complaint also alleges that the Jail fails to protect inmate safety, fails to provide medical care, and fails to provide sufficiently sanitary living conditions.
Terrell County had previously entered into a voluntary settlement agreement that would have remedied the illegal conditions identified at the jail. However, the County failed to live up to the terms of that agreement, which necessitated the filing of this lawsuit.
“When a jurisdiction refuses to take appropriate steps to address violations of constitutional rights, and flouts its agreements to do so, the Department of Justice will move aggressively to protect those rights,” said R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
On May 28, 2004, the Department opened an investigation of conditions of care at the Vermont State Hospital, located in Waterbury, Vermont. The investigation will focus on whether the hospital is adequately protecting patients from harm, whether seclusion and restraints are being used properly, whether medical and nursing care is adequate, whether patients are being provided adequate rehabilitation and treatment programming, and whether patients are being served in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.
Vermont State Hospital is a 54-bed mental health hospital for involuntarily committed patients. Although small, the hospital plays a significant role within Vermont’s mental health system as the center for servicing those with the most serious mental illnesses and forensic patients committed by the court system for evaluation. Twenty percent of the patients are short-term admissions who remain for less than 30 days while roughly one-third have been at the facility for more than one year.
In September 2003, after two suicides within six weeks, one of which occurred during a survey by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), and a history of locking patients in their rooms overnight without access to restrooms, CMS sent a letter to Vermont State Hospital terminating its federal assistance. The hospital has applied for CMS re-certification.
On June 3, 2004, Justice Department representatives met with Vermont officials regarding the investigation. The State has pledged its cooperation with the investigation.
August 12, 2004