While investigating suspicious deaths in state institutions, the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy (VOPA) requested relevant records from state officials. Virginia refused, stating that a state-law privilege protected records from disclosure. VOPA sued the State agency in U.S. District Court.
The District Court denied Virginia’s motion to dismiss. Virginia appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Court of Appeals granted Virginia’s motion, noting “special sovereignty interests” that bars one state agency from suing another.
On April 19, in Virginia Office of Protection & Advocacy v. Stewart, 563 U. S. ____ (2011), the Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit, and held that the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy (VOPA) can litigate and pursue other necessary legal remedies to fulfill their duty “to protect and advocate the rights” of people with disabilities.
Why is this decision important to you?
The mandate of all state P&A agencies is “to protect and advocate the rights” of people with disabilities. Several P&As have investigated claims that children with disabilities were improperly restrained and secluded in public schools. Courts of Appeals have affirmed the right of P&As to examine records relating to these children, over school district claims that they could not allow the P&A to view children’s records because of “confidentiality:”
Disability Rights Wisconsin, Inc., v. v. Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction & Elizabeth Burmaster, Superintendent of Public Instruction (7th Cir. 2006) describes the responsibilities of P&As to protect individuals with disabilities and limits on confidentiality under the Family Educational Rights to Privacy Act (FERPA).
Connecticut Office of Protection & Advocacy v. Hartford Bd of Educ, Hartford Public Schools & Robert Henry, Sup. of Schools (2d Cir 2006) held that P&As have a statutory responsibility to investigate suspected cases of abuse and neglect of individuals with disabilities; found probable cause that “multiple individuals have been subjected to abuse or neglect” at Hartford Transitional Academy.
Justice Scalia, author of the 6-2 decision in Virginia Office of Protection & Advocacy v. Stewart, was joined by Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Justices Kennedy and Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion. The decision also addressed Virginia’s claim that a State’s dignity is diminished when a federal court adjudicates a dispute between its components.
In the summary/syllabus of the opinion, the Court advised:
“While investigating patient deaths and injuries at state mental hospitals, VOPA asked respondents—state officials in charge of those hospitals—to produce relevant patient records. Respondents refused, asserting that a state-law privilege shielded the records from disclosure.
“VOPA then filed suit in Federal District Court, seeking a declaration that respondents’ refusal to produce the records violated the DD and PAIMI Acts and an injunction requiring respondents to produce the records and refrain in the future from interfering with VOPA’s right of access.
“Respondents moved to dismiss on the ground that they are immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment, but the court held that the suit was permitted by the doctrine of Ex parte Young, 209 U. S. 123, which normally allows federal courts to award prospective relief against state officials for violations of federal law. The Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that Ex parte Young did not apply because the suit was brought by a state agency.”