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Society for Good Will to Retarded Children Inc. v. Cuomo

June 13, 1984

SOCIETY FOR GOOD WILL TO RETARDED CHILDREN, INC., RUSSELL COHEN, BY HIS NATURAL FATHER MILTON COHEN, AUDREY ROTHSTEIN, BY HER NATURAL MOTHER PAULA ROTHSTEIN, DONALD WILLIAM FEARING, BY HIS NATURAL FATHER GEORGE FEARING, SUSAN FEIBUSCH, BY HER NATURAL FATHER PHILIP FEIBUSCH, LISA GORELICK, BY HER NATURAL MOTHER LEILA GORELICK, LYNN N. SCHENK, BY HER NATURAL MOTHER MILDRED SCHENK, HENRY F. SEGAL, BY HIS NATURAL FATHER MILTON SCHENK, HENRY F. SEGAL, BY HIS NATURAL FATHER DAVID H. SEGAL, SUSAN L. MEEHIN, BY HER NATURAL FATHER MILTON MEEHIN, ROBERT CUNNINGHAM, BY HIS NATURAL FATHER CHARLES CUNNINGHAM, NICHOLAS COLACIOPPO, BY HIS NATURAL MOTHER BEATRICE COLACIOPPO, THOMAS H. CZERNIEWICZ, BY HIS NATURAL FATHER JOHN CZERNIEWICZ, CHRISTOPHER M. VERDINO, BY HIS NATURAL FATHER RUDOLPH VERDINO AND BARBARA L. KARP, BY HER NATURAL MOTHER MILDRED KARP, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL THOSE SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES-CROSS-APPELLANTS,
v.
MARIO M. CUOMO, AS GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, THOMAS A. COUGHLIN, III, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS COMMISSIONER OF THE OFFICE OF MENTAL RETARDATION AND DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES, JENNIFER L. HOWSE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ASSOCIATE COMMISSIONER OF THE OFFICE OF MENTAL RETARDATION AND DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES AND ALAN R. SUTHERLAND, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ACTING DIRECTOR OF THE SUFFOLK DEVELOPMENTAL CENTER, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS-CROSS-APPELLEE



Plaintiffs, representatives of a class of mentally retarded residents of the Suffolk Developmental Center, brought an action against state officials seeking, inter alia, (1) improvement of living conditions at the Center and of the training and education provided to Center residents, and (2) transfer of the residents into community settings. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Weinstein, C.J., issued an order granting plaintiffs most of the relief requested, but limiting its order of community placement to 400 of the Center's residents. The district court did not abuse its discretion in certifying the class. The portions of the district court's order requiring community placement, as well as some other portions of the order, cannot be grounded on state law because of the Eleventh Amendment and cannot be supported by the federal Constitution.

Meskill, Pierce and Pratt, Circuit Judges.

Author: Meskill

Meskill, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Weinstein, C.J. 572 F. Supp. 1300. It concerns the welfare of a few of the more than seven million mentally retarded individuals in this country. It also concerns the constitutional powers and constraints of federal courts that are asked to grant relief when state political branches of government are perceived as too slow in improving individual welfare. The district court painstakingly conducted a thorough trial and issued a decree which would result in vast changes in the lives of the mentally retarded individuals involved. While the changes embodied in the district court's decree may be commendable, we hold that some of those changes were requested from the wrong branch of government and some of them are beyond the court's constitutional power to order.

Mario Cuomo, the Governor of the State of New York, and his co-defendants appeal from a judgment of the district court ordering changes in the living environment and training for the mentally retarded residents of the Suffolk Developmental Center and ordering the placement of 400 Center residents into the community by 1987. Plaintiffs, a class representing Center residents, crossappeal the decision to place only 400 residents in the community rather than all 1,209. We hold that part of the district court's order cannot be supported on federal constitutional grounds. Because the district court did not base any relief on federal statutory grounds, we vacate the order and remand for reconsideration in light of this opinion.

I

Facts and Procedure

The Suffolk Developmental Center (SDC), a state operated school for the mentally retarded on Long Island, was opened in 1965. At the time of trial, it housed 1,209 individuals. Of those individuals, 933 (seventy-seven percent) were considered profoundly retarded (IQ below 20), 147 (twelve percent) severely retarded (IQ 20 to 35), 73 (six percent) moderately retarded (IQ 36 to 51), 40 (three percent) mildly retarded (IQ 52 to 69) and the remainder either of normal intelligence or not catagorized. The population at SDC had dwindled since the mid-1970s because many of the less severely retarded individuals had left the Center; as a result, SDC in 1983 housed a much greater percentage of highly retarded individuals than it did in the 1970s.

The instant action was filed on August 23, 1978. The fourteen named plaintiffs-appellees are the organization of parents of SDC residents and thirteen mentally retarded SDC residents. Defendants-appellants are the Governor of New York, two state officials in the Office of Mental Retardation and Development Disabilities and the Director of SDC.*fn1 The action was brought on behalf of the named plaintiffs and all mentally retarded individuals residing at SDC as well as most of those on SDC's rolls. It sought various forms of declaratory and injunctive relief, including (1) improvement of conditions at SDC and of the training and education provided to SDC residents, so that the residents could have "a meaningful opportunity to improve [their] condition in the least restrictive environment possible," and (2) transfer of SDC residents into community settings (community placement) and the development of community residences and support services. The district court certified the plaintiff class on May 15, 1980.

The bench trial consumed over twenty-one court days in March, April, September and October 1982. At the trial, more than fifty witnesses were called, 300 exhibits received and 4,000 pages of transcripts recorded. The court also visited SDC three times, once in 1978 and twice shortly after the trial. Following the trial, the court ordered SDC's director, Fred McCormack, to submit a written four year plan for the improvement of SDC and the living conditions of its residents. The plan was submitted on April 22, 1983 and public hearings were held on the plan in June of that year. On August 10, 1983, the district court issued its opinion and order. It predicated its order on both the federal Constitution and New York law and declined to adjudicate any of the class' claims under various federal statutes.

The district court's order was a modified version of the plan submitted by McCormack. It mandated extensive improvements in the facilities, care and living environment at SDC, as well as the community placement of 400 SDC residents by 1987. Defendants appealed the class certification and the entire order. Plaintiffs cross-appealed the decision to place only 400 residents in the community, contending that all SDC residents should have been granted community placement.

Initially, we must review the propriety of the district court's certification of the plaintiff class. The district court has broad discretion in certifying classes and we cannot say here that it has abused is discretion. Cf. Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1, 5-6, 67 L. Ed. 2d 694, 101 S. Ct. 1531 (1981); Woe v. Cuomo, 729 F.2d 96, 107 (2d Cir. 1984). We thus affirm the district court on its class certification.

During the pendency of the trial and well before the district court's opinion and order, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 102 S. Ct. 2452, 73 L. Ed. 2d 28 (1982). Youngberg was the first Supreme Court decision dealing with the substantive due process rights of mentally retarded individuals in state institutions. The district court's opinion relied heavily on its interpretation of Youngberg. This Court has also considered the effect of Youngberg in determining the substantive rights of SDC residents and how those rights may be enforced by the federal courts, and it has relied on that decision extensively in its review of the district court's opinion and order.

II

The District Court's Findings

A. Food, Shelter, Medical Care and Clothing

It cannot be disputed that SDC residents have a constitutional right to adequate food, shelter, clothing and medical care. See Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. at 316 (state conceded that involuntarily committed had above rights). Prison inmates have a constitutional right to decent and humane conditions, Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251, 97 S. Ct. 285 (1976); and residents of schools for the mentally retarded, who cannot be punished as can prison inmates, have rights at least as great as those of inmates. Youngberg, 457 U.S. at 315-16.*fn2 Appellants essentially concede that SDC residents have these rights under the Due Process Clause. Br. for Appellants at 49.

With this in mind, we discuss whether SDC residents have been provided with constitutionally adequate food, shelter, clothing and medical care.

1. Food

Appellees stipulated that the quality and quantity of food served at SDC was adequate. J. App. at 2240-41. The district court, however, found that SDC residents sometimes do not receive a constitutionally adequate amount of food. It so held not because the amount of food served was inadequate, but because it found that more aggressive SDC residents grabbed the food actually served to other residents.

Although there is evidence that food grabbing did occur, see J. App. at 886 (testimony of Kathy Schwaninger), we find insufficient support for a holding that the food provided at SDC fails to meet constitutional minimums because of food grabbing. The district court has only provided two isolated examples of residents who might have been denied proper food because of the behavior of other residents. Even in those two isolated instances, which occurred seven and sixteen years before the testimony regarding the incidents, the evidence that other residents might have been to blame was highly circumstantial. We find nothing in the record to indicate that it is common for residents to receive inadequate food because of the behavior of other residents.

Nevertheless, none of the district court's order is aimed at correcting the claimed constitutional deficiencies in the food at SDC. Therefore, even though we hold that the district court's finding of fact was clearly erroneous, our ...


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