Olmstead v. L.C.

Question: Two women known as L.C. and E.W. requested a discharge from a Georgia State Regional Hospital in Atlanta where they had been voluntarily housed in the psychiatric unit for some time. This led to a lawsuit and the U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Olmstead.  When was Olmstead decided?

A) 1993

B) 1995

C) 1999

D) 2000

Answer: C) 1999

Starting in 1995, two women known as L.C. and E.W. requested discharges from a Georgia State Regional Hospital in Atlanta where they had been voluntarily housed in the psychiatric unit for some time. Their hope was to be reintegrated into the community via a supported living program. When they found themselves waiting months for their discharge, they filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia. This lawsuit went on to be one of the most important court decisions for the disability community in the years that followed.

Tree rings
Name the year!

L.C. and E.W. were originally admitted to the psychiatric unit on account of their developmental disabilities, as well as their individual cases of schizophrenia and personality disorder, respectively. After years in the institution, they were each assessed to be ready and fit for a life in the community by their psychiatrists. Yet when they requested the discharge, the State of Georgia failed to find them any sort of community placement, forcing them to remain in the institution despite their assessment.

Due to certain provisions within the Americans with Disability Act of 1990, the two women believed they had a right to the most appropriate placement possible, a living situation within the community. They decided to file a lawsuit against Tommy Olmstead, the Georgia State Commissioner of Human Resources at the time. By 1999, Olmstead vs. L.C. and E.W. had worked its way up to the Supreme Court.

In a multi-faceted and split 6-3 decision, the high court essentially agreed with the two women. The verdict stated that Title II of the ADA, known as the “integration mandate” regarded unnecessary isolation as a form of discrimination.

According to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University, “Title II of the ADA, proscribes discrimination in the provision of public services, specifies, inter alia, that no qualified individual with a disability shall, “by reason of such disability,” be excluded from participation in, or be denied the benefits of, a public entity’s services, programs, or activities.”

The majority opinion, written by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, echoed the requirement posed by Title II.

“Unjustified placement or retention of persons in institutions severely limits their exposure to the outside community, and therefore constitutes a form of discrimination based on disability prohibited by Title II.”

Yet the Court did not condemn institutionalization altogether, leaving much room for debate in the years following the decision. The justices did not go so far to say that community placement was required if one of two criteria could be met: 1) the state could show that that sort of placement could not be reasonably accommodated when compared to others in similar circumstances, or 2) that the placement would require a “fundamental alteration” of the state’s whole service system. The ruling deemed it sufficient for a state to have a long term plan and a waiting list for community placement that moves at a “reasonable pace.”

In the specific case of L.C. and E.W. though, the Court determined that Georgia’s system did not meet the above requirements for exemption from community placement.. They were able to move out of the psychiatric unit and into community-living arrangements even before the Supreme Court’s final verdict was decided.

Olmstead v. L.C. (98-536) 527 U.S. 581 (1999)

An article written by Steven J. Taylor for the Encyclopedia of American Disability History, edited by Susan Collins, Facts on File Inc. 2009

Legal Information Institute of Cornell University

Center for Personal Assistance Services

Will is the editor for the Galaxy Awareness and History pages as well as one of our pollsters. He is a sophomore at Seattle University majoring in philosophy. His home is La Crosse Wisconsin.