Friday, July 15, 2005

Fourth Circuit affirms dismissal of civil rights suit involving rights of mentally retarded individuals

In Fonner v. Fairfax County, No. 03-1068 (4th Cir. July 14, 2005) (PDF), two mentally retarded adult men sued Fairfax County, alleging violations of their constitutional rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One of the men, Fonner, was a resident of a group home. He was prohibited by the group home's staff from visiting the private residence of the other man, Durie. Durie resided with an employee of the group home, and the rules of the group home prohibited residents from visiting the homes of staff members.

Fonner was dismissed from the suit after a guardian ad litem was appointed and reported that he did not want to proceed as a plaintiff. Durie proceeded with the suit, but a protective order prevented his counsel from deposing Fonner. Durie's claims were later dismissed on summary judgment.

Several points were addressed in the opinion:

1. Was the district court authorized to appoint a guardian ad litem under Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(c) even absent a determination of incompetency by the Commonwealth of Virginia?

Held: Yes. "Nothing in the rule [F.R. Civ. P., Rule 17(c)] prohibits the district court from appointing a guardian ad litem to represent a person not previously adjudicated as incompetent through a state proceeding." Moreover, "[t]he federal district court may, of course, appoint a guardian ad litem in its discretion" where the district court believes the appointment is in the infant or incompetent’s interests. " Genesco, Inc. v. Cone Mills Corp., 604 F.2d 281, 285 (4th Cir. 1975).

2. Was Fonner properly dismissed as a party?

Held: Yes. In the opinion of the guardian ad litem, Fonner had not knowingly authorized his attorney to represent him. On her report the district court dismissed Fonner from the case. The Court found the dismissal to be within the district court's discretion.

3. Did the district court properly enter a protective order under F. R. Civ. P. 26(c) prohibiting Fonner's deposition?

Held: Yes. The court relied on the report of Fonner’s court-appointed guardian ad litem and the affidavit of Fonner’s treating psychologist. The guardian ad litem’s report noted that Fonner is emotionally fragile and that his opinions and beliefs could be changed by the suggestions of others. The psychologist stated that a deposition would cause Fonner to be "emotionally overwhelmed and traumatized," that "the negative effects of the deposition would likely trigger a relapse of previous symptoms and problematic behaviors" in Fonner and "greatly interfere
with Fonner’s functioning in daily life." The court acted within its discretion in entering a protective order.

4. Were Durie's civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 properly dismissed on summary judgment?

Held: Yes. Durie claimed that the defendants violated his constitutional rights of free association, substantive due process, procedural due process, and equal protection. The Court held that "[t]he decision by the defendants to restrict residents from the group home was made in response to an investigation by Mental Retardation Services warning that the professional relationship between staff and residents of the Essex House could be compromised if residents were allowed to visit staff member’s homes. The need to maintain professional relationships between county staff and group home residents is a legitimate State interest. Therefore, even if Durie could establish that other similarly situated individuals were treated differently, the defendants’ decision should be upheld as rationally related to a legitimate State interest. Accordingly, we hold that the district court did not err in granting summary judgment for the defendants on Durie’s § 1983 claims."

5. Were Durie's ADA claims also appropriately dismissed on summary judgment?

Held: Yes. The applicable portion of the ADA provides that "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity." 42 U.S.C. § 12132 (1995). However, the court found that "[t]here is no evidence that Durie ever requested services or benefits from Essex House or Fairfax County, and no evidence that he was excluded from participating in any programs of Essex House or Fairfax County. Durie’s only allegation is that the defendants prohibited Fonner, a resident ... from visiting Durie at Durie’s home while ... a county employee and counselor, was also living there. This allegation is not sufficient to support a claim that Durie was denied the benefits of a service, program, or activity of a public entity, or subjected to discrimination by a public entity because of his disability."

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