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VOPA v. Reinhard: A Case About Disabilities Rights

Are states immune from suits by their own agencies?

The 2010-11 term brings a major test of the powers of independent state agencies that aim to protect the rights of people with disabilities. In Virginia Office of Protection and Advocacy (VOPA) v. Reinhard, the Court will decide whether VOPA and other protection and advocacy agencies, known as P&A agencies, may sue state officials in federal court over alleged violations of federal law or whether states are immune from such suits.

The case arose from a dispute between VOPA and state officials over the release of medical records from two state institutions. VOPA had requested the records as part of its investigation into the deaths of residents in state custody. State officials refused to release the records, arguing that they were privileged under Virginia law.

What’s at stake. Most state P&A agencies have special programs that aim to help older citizens, including beneficiaries of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Where AARP stands. AARP, siding with VOPA, argues that “P&A organizations are essential to remedying and preventing abuse and neglect of older persons and people with disabilities.”

How the Court Ruled

In a 6-2 decision issued on April 19, the Court sided with VOPA, holding that state officials are not immune from lawsuits brought by P&A agencies of the same state.

“It was Virginia law that created VOPA and gave it the power to sue state officials,” the Court’s opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, noted. And it pointed out that VOPA is specifically empowered to “initiate any proceedings to secure the rights” of disabled individuals.

Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Samuel Alito joined.

Next: What if a veteran trying to receive benefits misses a deadline because of a service-related disability?

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