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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Contempt and Enforcement of ADA Injunctions

This case has some lessons for plaintiffs and defendants on what constitutes contempt, how to keep out of court after an ADA settlement, and on how courts respond to violations of orders. (Anyone interested in the details of medical hospital construction and ADA corrective actions will want to read the entire opinion).

What are those lessons?

• Take all decree-imposed obligations very seriously. They are likely to be enforced.
• Good communication should be a high priority. Defendants must keep plaintiffs informed of any delays or unforeseen difficulties. Frequent status reports are very helpful.
• Even in the midst of compliance disputes, defendants benefit from moving forward to the extent possible to fulfill the decree’s mandates.
• Vigorous and rigorous judicial oversight of compliance activities greatly facilitiates enforcement.

These lessons are consistent with my experience as a federal court special master and court-appointed monitor in complex litigation.

In 2003, John Mannick sued the Kaiser Oakland Hospital under the ADA and local law claming that his rights had been violated during a stay at the hospital. A 2005 Consent Decree settled the case and required the creation of: 1) accessible parking and paths of travel from the parking to the hospital; 2) an accessible patient discharge area; 3) an accessible entrance; 4) accessible patient rooms and roll-in showers/restrooms; and 5) enactment and implementation of new policies and procedures regarding patient admittance and employee training. The Consent Decree set deadlines and established details regarding these requirements.

In a Contempt Motion, Plaintiff urged that Defendants should be found in civil contempt because they failed to meet the deadlines in the Consent Decree for corrective work, did not make all reasonable efforts to comply, and failed to give notice – as required under the Decree – that they were experiencing “unforeseen difficulties” in compliance. Defendants were overdue months with regard to a number of obligations.

The hospital conceded that it did not meet the deadlines established in the Consent Decree, and, also, that they did not give the required thirty day notice with respect to unforeseen delays. However, the hospital urged that it not be held in contempt because it substantially complied with the Consent Decree and any failures to complete the corrective work on time or give notice of delays were “very minor technical violations” or inadvertent.

By the time the court held a hearing, a number of violations had been corrected and Plaintiff agreed that contempt sanctions were not appropriate for now-remedied items. Several continuing violations were still “in play,” so to speak.

The court concluded that “while Defendants have acted in good faith, they have not taken all reasonable steps to comply with the Consent Decree and therefore should be found in civil contempt.” As to various requirements, the court found that the hospital failed to explain delays, failed to expedite the design process, could have anticipated certain issues, unilaterally chose to “totally” alter one of the plans. The hospital’s failure (when former outside counsel represented it) to give plaintiff notice of delays and problems was a separate ground for contempt.

The hospital “repeatedly failed to comply with the time line required under the Decree. They failed also to notify Plaintiff at all, during this period, of the delay or the causes for the delay.” (emphasis in original).

What is the remedy for contempt? The court declined to impose monetary sanctions. In perhaps the most significant language in the decision, the court decided that compliance enforcement against a “large institution” is best effected by “more rigorous court oversight.” As the court put it:

"… a small monetary penalty will be less effective in enforcing compliance by a large institution like Defendants than will be more rigorous court oversight. Therefore, in light of Defendants' history of failing to make reasonable efforts to meet the deadlines set forth in the Consent Decree, the Court recommends that Defendants be required to participate in Compliance Hearings, to be conducted by the undersigned magistrate judge, every four months until all required work is completed. The parties shall submit a joint status report ten (10) days prior to each hearing. At such hearings, the Court could consider and recommend any further remedies that are necessary, depending on the progress of the construction."

Defendants also sought seek a modification of the Decree to eliminate some requirements and to extend certain deadlines. Defendants contended Also, the original construction estimates were off; a sixth floor room budgeted at $400,000 was now budgeted at $611,000. Two other reasons were advanced: a) the hospital is to be torn down in 2013, and b) no disabled person other than the original plaintiff has complained about the lack of accessible facilities. The court rejected all these grounds for modification of the decree. However, the court did permit Defendants to do some of the construction in phases. because the simultaneous construction of some of the accessible hospital rooms would take a large number of beds out of service, thus harming the community served by the hospital.

Mannick v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc., 2006 WL 3734390 (Dec. 18, 2006, N.D.Cal.) (district judge adopting report by magistrate judge).

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