Olmstead v. LC and EW
This case of first impression in the Eleventh Circuit sought community residential placements for L.C. and E.W. who had spent the majority of their lives in mental institutions. For several years, their treatment teams acknowledged that they no longer met the requirements for involuntary confinement, but refused to release them to a community-based program with appropriate services. The case, filed in 1995, presents a claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Our position is that the State of Georgia can no longer provide disability services to a mentally or physically disabled person in an institutional setting if he or she could be served in a more integrated, community-based setting. The State appealed a favorable decision of the federal District Court granting summary judgment for our plaintiffs. Oral argument before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals was in November 1997. The Eleventh Circuit ruled that the State's failure to provide integrated community services under these circumstances violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The State appealed to the United States Supreme Court to reverse that ruling. Now known as Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W., it was heard on April 21, 1999. This is the first U.S. Supreme Court case involving the "integration mandate" of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Although both plaintiffs were receiving community services in response to the lawsuit, the case continued because the State of Georgia had not changed its policies, and the situation could have arisen again.
After LC and EW moved from institutional life into the community, each progressed in ways that reveal the monotony of their former circumstances -- for example, LC likes long neighborhood walks and has (after many years) reconnected with her mom and sister. She visits the mall and picks out her own clothes. She has favorite meals and has learned to plan a menu. She quit a 3-pack a day cigarette habit. She speaks clearly and communicates well. She has two close friends at the group home. She loved her first airplane trip to Washington, and her meeting with a variety of media in connection with the Supreme Court consideration of her case.
EW spent a year in a group home, where she decorated her own room, organized picture albums, and made regular weekend trips home to be with her extended family. She lived in a house with a caretaker and friend, who worked during the day while EW was at her pre-vocational program. EW became increasingly independent, taking complete responsibility for her own medical needs, an area that institutional doctors felt was problematic. was able to shop, cook, choose her own clothes, and attend family events and celebrations.
The case was heard in the Supreme Court on April 21, 1999.
Several Legal Aid lawyers, the Board's President and Vice President attended the argument. Most used words such as "awe-inspiring" and "re-energizing" to describe the experience.
"The two legal aid clients who were Plaintiffs in this case were, like each of our clients, people with little income and, by conventional standards, undervalued. We represented them simply because they called our office - exactly why we represent all of our clients. The fact that we filed a case in federal court raising an ADA claim is mostly because unnecessary institutionalization of people is the most egregious of the many wrongs endured by our clients with mental disabilities -- like spousal abuse, illegal evictions, consumer fraud, etc., etc., etc. . . . The case began like all our cases with the everyday effort to represent someone who called the office.
"The question these clients asked was, in essence, 'Can you help me out of this outrageous situation?' The question we are asked every day over and over and over.
"How the question ended up in the Supreme Court is as random as the lottery. Fewer than 100 of 7000 petitions for certiorari are granted each year. . . . Somehow, one of those many questions got blown up to an exaggerated size, just one of our many questions that we all persist in asking daily in our work, hoping to shift the balance slightly.
"What a great feeling it was to be annoying the Supreme Court with one of our clients' questions!
"Thank you for so much good will, good wishes and support. "
Judge Patsy Y. Porter, 1999 ALAS President:
"I was both proud and humbled to be there. We have an awesome responsibility. The things we do affect everyone's lives. Win, lose or draw, I still think we win because we stand up for the rights of people who would not otherwise have a voice. That in itself is why we have Legal Aid. We are protecting the Constitutional rights of everyone in this country. And no matter what happens now, we have done the right thing for these clients."
On July 11, 2000, in the courtroom of Judge Marvin Shoob, the LC and EW v. Olmstead case came to a formal close with the signing of the final settlement agreement.
Sue Jamieson, lead counsel for Legal Aid's clients, began with a presentation crediting the lawyers that have been involved, the courage of the clients, and the judicial pioneering of Judge Shoob for this milestone. Sue described the long litigation road, and the benefits of the settlement to the clients.
The court then called on the guardian ad litem, Jonathan Zimring, who had high praise for the legal team that represented his clients.
Perhaps the most moving statements came from the clients themselves, who were invited to address the court. Lois said that now that the case was over, she hoped it would help other people. Elaine said that now she feels loved and cared for where she lives. In the institution, she had felt like she was sitting in a little box with no way out. They both spoke of little things, such as making Kool Aid and being outdoors, that meant so much to them.
Judge Shoob then called on Steve Gottlieb, Executive Director of Atlanta Legal Aid, who mentioned that the case had been portrayed as the Brown v. Board of Education of disability law, and as a defining moment in the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Judge Shoob then declared that the settlement agreement was approved and was now in effect. He complimented Sue Jamieson, David Webster, and others for what he described as an outstanding effort and a splendid result.
Read the Brief for Respondents, written by Michael Gottesman of Georgetown University Law School, and Sue Jamieson and Steven Caley of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. This is divided into Table of Contents and Table of Authorities; Text of Respondents' Brief; Appendix.
Read about the impact of this case at the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.
Read the 11th Circuit decision.
Ms. Elaine Wilson, 53, died on December 5, 2004. She was a plaintiff in the case L.C. and E.W. v. Olmstead, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1999. The case was filed against the state of Georgia, alleging that the Plaintiffs were being segregated in a psychiatric institution when, with proper supports, they could live a more normal, community-based life. Ms. Wilson intervened in the case in 1995, claiming along with her co-plaintiff, Lois Curtis, that she was being segregated unnecessarily in a state hospital in Georgia.
After 5 years of litigation, with the state appealing favorable decisions by the District Court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act required that states place persons with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their disability. The case has been called the Brown v. Board of Education case for persons with disabilities.
After filing the case, Ms. Wilson was provided with community services and she lived in a home with a friend and care-provider. Although she had been institutionalized more than 30 times prior to bringing the lawsuit, once she was provided with alternative community-based options, she enjoyed an active life in the community. She developed her own advocacy skills, speaking and presenting in Georgia and in other places in the country about her own experiences and her hopes for the freedom of other institutionalized persons. She was known and loved by many in the disability community who were inspired by her determination and interest in reaching out to others once she finally secured her own freedom.
LOIS CURTIS: FOLK ARTIST
Lois Curtis, one of the original Olmstead plaintiffs, has been busy since being freed from a lifetime of repeated institutionalizations. She enjoys living in her own home, with the aid of community based services; she has reconnected with her family, and she has made new friends.
Her own experiences with institutionalization, and the Supreme Court case that freed her, have prompted a passion for advocacy. "I want to tell everybody, so people can get out." The Tubman African American Museum recognized Lois with the “Act of Courage Award" for “standing up and taking action during challenging circumstances to make a difference for yourself and the lives of others.”
Lois has also found success as a folk artist, and has had several well received shows at several galleries, including Arts for All Gallery in the Healy Building in downtown Atlanta, the Temple Gallery in Decatur, and other galleries throughout the U.S.