DOJ: No Merit to Rhode Island's Objections to Compliance Fund

By Gina Macris

Saying Rhode Island’s objections have no merit, federal lawyers for a second time have urged a U.S. District Court judge to set aside state dollars to fund the so-called “sheltered workshop” consent decree – or to fashion whatever remedy he sees fit.

“The State’s objection to funding the Consent Decree is concerning and brings into questions its commitment to making the changes required,” lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justicewrote in a May 16 filing with the Court.

“Thus this Court must act to provide adequate incentive to the State to fund theConsent Decree, which it undoubtedly has the power to do,” the DOJ lawyers wrote to Judge John J. McConnell, Jr.

The DOJ’s plan would require the state to pay $5,000  each day it misses various compliance deadlines, and an additional $100 a day for each person whose services are delayed or interrupted as a result of inaction, with a cap of $1 million a year.

As an alternative to paying into the proposed Consent Decree Compliance Fund , the DOJ lawyers suggested that McConnell  come up with his own remedy.

The government’s remarks came in a filing in which it expressed surprise that the state is now offering “meritless objections” to paying into the proposed fund to  fulfill its responsibilities under provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In 2014, a DOJ investigation found the state for decades had illegally segregated adults with disabilities in sheltered workshops that paid sub-minimum wage, and in day programs cut off from the community. Rhode Island then agreed to federal supervision over a ten-year period to transform its system to emphasize supported employment in the community, adopting an “Employment First” policy.

The 2014 agreement marked the first such consent decree in the nation aimed at turning around daytime services that violate the 1999 Olmstead decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the decree is just one part of a much broader, aggressive push begun by the Obama administration in 2009 to enforce the  Olmstead order, which said that Title II of the ADA requires agencies to serve individuals with a variety of disabilities, day and night, in the least restrictive environment that is appropriate.

In Rhode Island, the DOJ’s civil rights division earlier in May asked McConnell to put the court monitor in the case in charge of a Consent Decree Compliance Fund, citing the state’s continued failure to implement reforms.

The court monitor, Charles Moseley, would decide how to spend the money to benefit adults with disabilities.

Marc DeSisto, the state’s lawyer, objected, saying, in part, that the proposal amounts to a contempt order without the procedural rights enabling a defendant to show it made its best efforts to comply but was thwarted by forces beyond its control.

On May 16, the DOJ replied that “a finding of contempt would be appropriate at this juncture,” but its proposal does not ask for that. Instead, the Consent Decree Compliance Fund is envisioned as a vehicle for funding the consent decree, something the state said it wanted to do, according to the latest DOJ arguments.

During the last few months, all sides have agreed – in open court – that the developmental disabilities system does not have enough money to meet the consent decree requirements.  

Moseley, the monitor, told McConnell at one point that if the state didn’t meet certain benchmarks now, it would be impossible to achieve overall compliance by the time the decree expires on Jan. 1, 2024.

It was the state’s lawyer, DeSisto, who initially approached the DOJ and the monitor to ask for an evidentiary hearing so that the judge could gauge the state’s progress on compliance and decide what yet needed to be done to put the state on track to meet long-term goals.

At the hearing, held April 8, the state could not provide an accurate census of the individuals covered by the consent decree, the DOJ noted, but it did present evidence about a plan for achieving compliance going forward.

Now, the state is objecting to its own plan,  the DOJ lawyers said.

“After two years of noncompliance,” federal lawyers wrote, “it is appropriate and necessary, in the absence of commitment by the State to the basic compliance measures outlined in the Proposed Order, for the Court to take action.”