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AARP Attorneys File Lawsuit on Behalf of D.C. Residents Fighting Institutionalization

AARP Foundation Litigation (AFL) attorneys brought a civil rights class action against the District of Columbia on behalf of residents of Washington, D.C., nursing homes who want to live in their own homes.


The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) gives individuals a right to receive long-term supportive services in the most integrated setting appropriate and requires states to reform policies and practices that cause unnecessarily segregation or isolation in nursing homes and other institutions. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court found it a violation of the ADA to unnecessarily segregate a person with a disability in an institutional setting (Olmstead v. L.C. ex rel. Zimring).

Eleven years later, the court's decision is not being honored by many state and local governments. AFL attorneys have participated in lawsuits around the country that challenge states to provide home- and community-based alternatives to institutionalization.

In December 2010, AFL attorneys — in conjunction with University Legal Services and the private law firm of Arent Fox, LLP — filed a class action lawsuit against the city on behalf of residents of Washington, D.C., nursing homes. The lawsuit alleges that as many as 2,900 city residents with disabilities are institutionalized in nursing homes despite the ability to live independently if provided information about and access to home- and community-based services. The lawsuit seeks to order the city to provide these services and inform residents of their rights and choices.

The lawsuit alleges that because of the District's failure to fund and make available sufficient community-based alternatives, individuals with disabilities often have nowhere to go but nursing facilities. Indeed, many people are forced to choose between living out their lives in an institutional nursing facility or homelessness.

"It's like you're stripped of all your adulthood," 46-year-old Vietress Bacon, one of the lead plaintiffs, told The Washington Post. Lead plaintiff Edward Day explained: "Once you get inside that gate, you're inside a jail."

Despite efforts to resolve this problem without litigation, and a federal grant making more than $26 million available to help transition older and disabled residents from institutions, thousands of residents in nursing homes continue to languish there against their wishes. Ultimately, a lawsuit was seen as necessary to protect the residents.

What's at Stake

The lawsuit alleges that between 500 and 3,000 D.C. residents with disabilities are unnecessarily institutionalized. Eleven years after Olmstead, the lawsuit alleges, the D.C. government still does not have a comprehensive, effective plan to implement that decision. Implementing the decision is not only a civil rights issue, but a fiscal one. Through its Medicaid program, D.C. spends on average $60,000 per year per person in a nursing facility and $230,000 per year per person in a psychiatric hospital; many of these residents could instead receive community-based mental health services for approximately $25,000 per year.


In Day v. District of Columbia the court rejected the District's motion for summary judgment and ruled that governing legal standards and undisputed facts undermine the District's claims that it complies with the ADA and Supreme Court's Olmstead decision.