For Immediate Release
202-408-9514 Ext. 122
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Virginia Office of Protection and Advocacy (VOPA) today in a case critical to the authority of the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) member agencies to advocate for and protect individuals with disabilities.
“The Supreme Court’s opinion maintains in the strongest way possible our ability to protect the rights of people with disabilities,” said Curt Decker, executive director of NDRN. “It’s a relief that this challenge to our mandate to vigorously and thoroughly investigate abuse and neglect in state institutions is over.”
The question before the court was whether VOPA, an independent state agency and member of NDRN, could sue another Virginia state agency in federal court.
The controversy arose in 2007 when VOPA was denied access to patient and peer review records in the course of investigating the suspicious deaths and abuse of individuals living in state operated institutions. VOPA is the federally designated Protection and Advocacy agency in Virginia and therefore has the authority under federal law to, among other rights, access the records of individuals living in state institutions.
VOPA sued in federal district court to access the records and, following a favorable ruling, the Commonwealth of Virginia appealed to the Fourth Circuit who reversed, holding that VOPA is barred by the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution from enforcing federal law against Virginia state officials in federal court because VOPA is also state entity, rather than a private, nonprofit corporation. The Court declined to rely on commonly held exceptions to the 11th Amendment and characterized the case as an “intramural state dispute.”
The victory in the Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision and held that VOPA, despite being a state entity, can sue other state officials in the course of carrying out its mission, authorized by federal law, to protect the rights of people with disabilities. The Court ruled 6-2 in favor of VOPA.
Seth Galanter of Morrison Foerster LLP argued on VOPA's behalf. VOPA attorney Paul Buckley acted as co-counsel. NDRN filed an amicus brief in support of VOPA.