Independent administrator to oversee D.C. compliance in disability lawsuit

By Henri E. Cauvin
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In a long-sought concession, the District has agreed to the appointment of an independent administrator to bring the city into compliance with court orders in a decades-old class-action lawsuit over the care of hundreds of people with developmental disabilities.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles had resisted such a move, saying that it was tantamount to a court takeover and that it would prolong the 34-year-old lawsuit while the Fenty administration was aggressively seeking to end the case and other long-running class actions.

But after a ruling this year rejecting the District's contention that the federal court was compelled to end the case, the city agreed to mediation with lawyers representing the disabled plaintiffs in the case known as Evans v. Fenty. Negotiations with the court's special master followed, and those involved eventually settled on an independent compliance administrator and revisions to the reform plan.

At a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, who oversees the case, is expected to consider former D.C. official Kathy Sawyer as the compliance administrator.

Sawyer led the District's developmental disabilities agency in the final months of the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams and in the first few months of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's as he sought to remake the agency, elevating its status and renaming it the Department on Disability Services.

Before coming to the District, Sawyer was Alabama's mental health and developmental disabilities commissioner. There she oversaw the settlement of a lawsuit that had outlasted more than a dozen of her predecessors. In proposing Sawyer to serve as the compliance administrator in the Evans case, the special master and the lawyers in the case are hoping that she can accelerate and expand the progress DDS has made in recent years.

About 2,000 people are served by DDS, including the nearly 600 former residents of the Forest Haven institution who make up those represented in the Evans class action.

"I think it would help bring the defendants into compliance, and that's what we all want," said Sandy Bernstein, a lawyer for University Legal Services, which, with the Center for Public Representation firm Holland & Knight, represents the disabled plaintiffs.

The fight over appointing an administrator is the latest chapter in the Evans lawsuit, which was filed in 1976 over the District's abysmal care of people with developmental disabilities. The class action led to the 1991 closure of Forest Haven, the city-owned institution in Laurel that for decades had housed the most severely disabled people.

In the years that followed, many of the problems persisted in the city-supervised network of community care, and the lawyers representing the disabled sought court intervention.

In 2007, Huvelle found that the District was not complying with court orders related to the safety and health of hundreds of former Forest Haven residents and that the District's failings were serious and systemic.

Last summer, a special master appointed by the court recommended the appointment of a compliance administrator. But Nickles and Fenty, who had made a priority of ending Evans and other long-running class actions involving mental health, child welfare and special education, balked -- until recently.

Nickles, who was faulted in May for publicly discussing the confidential mediation process, said Monday that he would not comment on the developments in the case until after they are discussed at Tuesday's hearing.

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