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Sutherland and Atlanta Legal Aid Celebrate 10th Anniversary of Olmstead v. L.C.

October 1, 2009

ATLANTA (October 1, 2009) – Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP and Atlanta Legal Aid Society are celebrating the 10th anniversary of Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999), a landmark decision holding that unjustified isolation of mentally disabled individuals in institutions is a form of disability discrimination prohibited by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
“This decision is considered by some to be the disability law parallel to Brown v. Board of Education," said Atlanta Legal Aid Executive Director Steve Gottlieb. “It is a defining moment in the Americans With Disabilities Act, in that it allowed individuals with mental or physical disabilities access to disability services in a community-based setting rather than an institutional setting."

The case began in 1995, when Atlanta Legal Aid filed a suit in federal court on behalf of Elaine Wilson and Lois Curtis, who sought to transfer from Georgia Regional Hospital in DeKalb County, Georgia, to a group home where they would continue to receive state-funded treatment. U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit both ruled in their favor. The State of Georgia appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999, arguing that states had the right to continue denying community-based services to people with disabilities because it historically had been in their best interest to receive treatment in nursing homes and mental health institutions.

“Elaine and Lois were determined to gain as much independence as they could," said Susan C. (Sue) Jamieson, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid who served as lead counsel. “The Americans With Disabilities Act mandates that people with disabilities get to decide if they want to live a reasonably normal life in a community setting, and we were determined to support Elaine and Lois."

Sutherland partnered with Atlanta Legal Aid in 1998 to file the opposition to the state’s certiorari petition.  When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Sutherland’s team of attorneys continued working on the brief. 

“This was not just any case," said Judith A. O’Brien, Sutherland’s Partner and Pro Bono Chair. “This was a case that literally changed the world for mentally disabled individuals who were unnecessarily segregated in mental hospitals. To this day, I take deep pride in the small but key role that my law firm played in Olmstead."

On June 22, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that mental illness is a form of disability and that institutional isolation of a person with a disability is a form of discrimination under Title II of the ADA. Following this decision, Atlanta Legal Aid continued working to ensure Olmstead was implemented appropriately. Sutherland participated in those efforts and filed a class action seeking to extend Olmstead to residents of nursing homes.

Ms. Wilson and Ms. Curtis left Georgia Regional Hospital in 1995 after filing suit and moved into group homes in metro Atlanta. Ms. Wilson passed away in December 2004. Ms. Curtis continues to live on her own in a community-based setting and has found success as a folk artist.

As part of the 10th anniversary, Atlanta Legal Aid and Sutherland, along with Georgia State University Law School, are co-sponsoring a symposium, “The Long Road Home: Perspectives On Olmstead Ten Years Later" on October 23. The symposium, featuring presentations by nationally prominent experts in the field of disability rights and policy, will explore the impact of the 1999 Olmstead decision on the disabled community and the future of similar litigation.

Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. provides civil legal services to persons with very low income in Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Clayton and Cobb counties. Last year, Atlanta Legal Aid attorneys handled more than 20,000 cases involving over 50,000 people, primarily involving housing, family, and senior citizens issues. Begun in 1924 by 17 idealistic young attorneys, Atlanta Legal Aid has meant access to the justice for countless individuals, who might otherwise be lost in an increasingly complex legal system.

Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP is a law firm with global reach known for solving challenging business problems and resolving sophisticated legal issues for many of the world’s largest companies. Founded in 1924, the firm handles matters throughout the United States and worldwide. Seven major practice areas—corporate, energy and environmental, financial services, intellectual property, litigation, real estate, and tax—provide the framework for an extensive range of focus areas, allowing Sutherland attorneys to serve a diverse client base that ranges from small and medium-sized start-up businesses to a significant number of Fortune 100 companies.

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