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AARP Supports Right to Bring Class Action Civil Rights Challenges

AARP’s brief in a case involving children with disabilities in Washington D.C. emphasized the importance of class actions for enforcing civil rights laws.


D.L. v. District of Columbia addresses Washington D.C.’s obligations to provide services to children between age three and five who have developmental delays or disabilities. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires governments to have policies and procedures to ensure eligible children are identified, located and evaluated, so that all eligible children who need early intervention can be identified and served in a timely manner. A class action on behalf of three-to-five year olds denied services or denied timely services was successfully litigated in federal court and injunctive relief was ordered in 2011.

A trial court found that the D.C. government’s program failed to meet federal requirements at all levels of staff and leadership. It faulted the District’s procedures, timeliness, and other deficiencies. It noted that the District’s identification of a mere 2.72 percent of children ages three to five as eligible for services was the lowest rate in the country and was in stark contrast to the national average, which was more than double that rate (5.68 percent of children receiving services).

The District appealed, arguing among other grounds that the dispute should never have been certified as a class action. D.C. argued that Congress did not authorize class based relief in the IDEA, and further, that a U.S. Supreme Court decision limited the availability of class actions in any event.

AARP has a strong interest in the continuing effectiveness of the class action device as a means of securing relief for groups of older persons harmed by governmental or non-governmental malfeasance – whether in the areas of healthcare, employment or consumer protection. In addition, AARP is currently embroiled in litigation with D.C. over its provision of long-term services and supports. Thus, assuring class action law remains fully effective is critical to the well-being of older persons in the District.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in Dukes v. Wal-Mart refused to certify a class of over a million aggrieved workers challenging what they alleged was gender discrimination. In that case, the Court found that the class had not demonstrated that their discrimination claims shared a common link as required by the federal judicial rules because there was no institution-wide discriminatory policy or practice satisfying the proof requirements for employment discrimination case under the Civil Rights Act—no “glue” holding the class together—and the plaintiffs’ allegations could not be uniformly adjudicated in ways applicable to the entire class.

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys and seven other organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in D.L., noting that class actions are generally available under federal law unless specifically precluded; that the commonality test of Wal-Mart had been met, and pointing out many post-Wal-Mart decisions that support these positions. Joining AARP on the brief were National Federation of the Blind, the National Disability Rights Network, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the National Health Law Program, University Legal Services Protection and Advocacy Program, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

On April 12, 2013, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the D.L. case should be reconsidered by the district court because of differences between the claims of various members of the plaintiff class. In particular the appeals court directed the trial court to consider whether the single plaintiff class – which the appeal court said was improper -- could be lawfully divided into valid “sub-classes” of children whose claims against the District within each sub-class would be sufficiently common to meet the standards imposed by the Wal-Mart decision.

What’s at Stake

This case addresses new limitations on class action litigation recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court. As the D.L. case demonstrates, the courts will require that plaintiffs to show, at the class action stage, that each member of a proposed class or sub class would – if liability is ultimately proven – suffer similar harm and obtain similar benefit from court-ordered relief if the case is permitted to proceed as a class action.

Case Status

D.L. v. District of Columbia was before the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.