Southern Legal Counsel receives 2014 Goldstein Award for Excellence


Southern Legal Counsel staff attorney Kirsten Clanton and Executive Director Jodi Siegel, second and third from left, respectively, and disability rights attorney Nancy Wright accepted the 2014 Steven M. Goldstein Award for Excellence from Judge William A. VanNortwick, who chaired the award committee.

A Southern Legal Counsel Inc. project to remedy due process violations by Florida’s developmental disabilities Medicaid waiver program was honored June 26 by The Florida Bar Foundation with its 2014 Steven M. Goldstein Award for Excellence.

The biannual Goldstein award recognizes a project of significant impact work undertaken by a Foundation Legal Assistance for the Poor general support grantee, and its recipients receive a $25,000 general support grant and a $3,000 staff training scholarship.

In Moreland v. Palmer, Southern Legal Counsel, together with disability rights attorney Nancy E. Wright, filed a statewide class action lawsuit in federal court against Barbara Palmer, the director of Florida’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), alleging due process violations in the agency’s implementation of “iBudget,” a new developmental disabilities Medicaid waiver program that cut the benefits of about 40 percent of those receiving services through the waiver.

Tina Russell of Port Orange, when looking at a 30 percent cut in the services provided to her 25-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy, told the Daytona Beach News-Journal in March 2013 that she worried how he would be able to continue to go to his adult day training program, and if he couldn’t, how she would be able to continue to work and pay the bills.

“This settlement provides a safeguard against arbitrary government action, and prevents the erroneous deprivation of these individuals’ services that are necessary to keep them living in the community, instead of an institution,” Southern Legal Counsel attorneys wrote in their award application.

About 30,000 Floridians with developmental disabilities receive Medicaid waiver services from the APD. These are people who meet the level of need required for institutional care but who, instead of being institutionalized, receive services that allow them to live at home with family members, in their own homes or in a licensed group home, and to participate in community life.

The program has had more than 22,000 people on the waiting list and has been chronically underfunded, and iBudget was instituted in an effort to control spending and get people off the waiting list. However, by failing to provide written notice and explanation of the intended reduction in services, APD left those consumers who faced a loss of services without the knowledge they needed to request a hearing or present evidence to appeal the cuts.

After an evidentiary hearing and two oral arguments, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker entered a preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs, and the parties mediated a settlement agreement to protect the due process rights of a class of more than 9,000.

Resulting changes include the reinstatement of all class members’ cost plans on a pro-rated basis to the level they were prior to the transition to iBudget and an agreed-upon notice from APD of iBudget allocation and reduction of annual funding amount to all class members, and at the same time their parents, guardians, guardian advocates or authorized representatives. Notice will be in English and in the class member’s primary language.

Southern Legal Counsel Inc., based in Gainesville, Fla., is a statewide not-for-profit public interest law firm that is committed to the ideal of equal justice for all and the attainment of basic human and civil rights. In 2013-14 it received a $149,000 general support grant from The Florida Bar Foundation and a $62,018 Children’s Legal Services grant, as well as $17,000 for legal aid attorney salary supplementation.

First runner-up for the Goldstein award was a successful effort by the Florida Legal Services Florida Institutional Legal Services Project to establish due process rights for people with developmental disabilities. The project received an award of $10,000, plus a $1,000 training scholarship. Second runner-up was The Consortium Project by Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc., which received $5,000, plus a $1,000 training scholarship.