WA Supreme Court adopts DRW argument

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A unanimous Washington State Supreme Court ruled last week that guardians for people with disabilities cannot spend their ward’s money on advocacy work unrelated to the individualized interests of their wards. Disability Rights Washington filed an amici brief in this case that advocated for this result.

“The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision is critical because it strongly reinforces the legal protections surrounding the autonomy and decision-making capacity of all people with disabilities who have guardians,” said Disability Rights Washington attorney Emily Cooper, who filed the amici brief in support of the state’s refusal to pay for the guardians’ special advocacy fees.

The case centered on James and Alice Hardman, the legal guardians for 28 individuals at the Shoreline, Washington-based Fircrest School, one of the state’s four large residential habilitation centers for people with developmental disabilities. In 2008, the Hardmans requested $150 in monthly “special advocacy fees” for their activities lobbying to retain the continued operation of the Fircrest School and other large institutions amid the state’s push to transfer more people with disabilities into smaller, more integrated, community-based housing arrangements. The activities included a trip to Washington DC to attend the annual Voice of the Retarded conference and extensive efforts to lobby legislators, the governor, and local lawmakers.

The State objected to the request, prompting a lawsuit from the Hardmans. Disability Rights Washington argued that these activities were an inappropriate use of a ward’s assets because they did not reflect either a ward’s stated or implied interest to keep all large institutions open or otherwise benefit the “health, safety or finance” of the individual wards. Disability Rights Washington went on to contend that segregating in large institutions individuals with disabilities who could live in community settings deprives them of liberty, is discriminatory, and violates state and federal law.

This argument found favor in the nine-member court, which noted that a guardian’s duties include exploring places where their wards can live in the least restrictive setting possible according to their wards’ needs and interests, as required by Washington’s guardianship law.

“Other than the Hardman’s preference for institutionalized care, there is no evidence in the record that every one of their wards would be best served by remaining at Fircrest,” the court stated.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Hardman’s, arguing that a guardian “literally stands-in-the-shoes of the ward and exercises the wards rights” including assuming their ward’s right to free speech. The court disagreed, noting that there are other avenues for giving voice to a ward’s interests, which do not involve depriving a ward of their civil rights to autonomy and liberty. The court also held that certain rights of the ward are not exercisable by a guardian and there is a valid state interest in ensuring that guardian fees are spent on behalf of the ward’s individualized interests rather than the guardian’s interests.

The State’s position was that guardians should never be allowed to spend the ward’s assets on lobbying activities. The court, however, agreed with Disability Rights Washington’s amici argument that wards maintain their rights to free speech and their guardian’s lobbying activities could be covered as long as they reflect the individualized needs or interests of the ward.

“The Hardmans may continue to advocate on behalf of their developmentally disabled wards, but when they are exercising their own political voice and where their services do not serve a particular ward’s individualized needs, they are not entitled to compensation from that ward’s assets,” the Court ruled.

DisAbility Rights Washington, the sponsor of DisAbility Rights Galaxy, is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.