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Settlement Reached in Disability Rights Class Action Lawsuit

Nichols Kaster is pleased to announce that Senior United States District Judge Donovan Frank of the District of Minnesota has granted preliminary approval to a settlement agreement reached by the parties in Murphy, et al. v. Harpstead, U.S. District Court File No. 16-cv-02623, a significant federal court civil rights lawsuit brought on behalf of a class of people with disabilities living in group homes. Nichols Kaster served as co-counsel with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and its affiliate the Minnesota Disability Law Center (“Legal Aid”), alongside Anthony Ostlund Louwagie Dressen & Boylan P.A.

In this case spanning six years, the Plaintiffs—a class estimated at over 1,000 individuals—asserted that they had been denied appropriate choice and opportunity to live in more independent and integrated homes of their own choosing within the community. The lawsuit alleged that the Minnesota Department of Human Services (“DHS”) disability programs over-rely on four-person group homes to serve people with disabilities, in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Olmstead v. L.C.

The Plaintiffs asserted constitutional claims under the 14th Amendment and claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The legal team overcame a motion to dismiss, obtained class certification, prevailed in an attempted interlocutory review, defeated a summary judgment motion and motions to exclude Plaintiffs’ experts, and succeeded on Plaintiffs’ own partial summary judgment motion. The case also involved several discovery motions over two rounds of discovery with millions of documents and over eighty depositions.

After multiple rounds of mediation with the magistrate judge and lengthy delays due to Covid—which has had a disproportionate effect on our clients—the case was set for trial on July 11, 2022. Shortly before trial, the parties participated in a two-day mediation with retired Judge James Rosenbaum and arrived at the present settlement.  

The settlement agreement requires DHS to take a variety of concrete steps that will improve access and opportunities for people with disabilities who want to live in their own home or apartment. Importantly, DHS will identify all persons with disabilities living in group homes who indicated a desire to explore more integrated housing options and provide each recipient information about accessing housing transition services.

The settlement also includes an agreement by the Department of Human Services to pay $1.138 million in attorneys’ fees and costs—the largest attorneys’ fees award received by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in its more than 100-year history. Nichols Kaster handled this case on a pro bono basis and donated all attorneys’ fees to Legal Aid, which Legal Aid will use to advance the rights of people with disabilities in Minnesota and improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of our community.

Laura Farley, an associate with Nichols Kaster who has been involved throughout the case explained: “The settlement is a great result. It reflects the hard work of a dedicated legal team over many years along with the perseverance and commitment of our Named Plaintiffs, who are very happy with the result. The settlement is important in that it will have both an immediate impact on the Plaintiffs’ lives and a lasting impact on the policies and practices at DHS.” Nichols Kaster partner Steve Smith added “I’m proud that Nichols Kaster was able to support Legal Aid in this important case, which is emblematic of the significant work they do.”

You can find more information on this case and our clients in articles featured in the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio.