For 17 years, the District of Columbia has answered to a federal judge when it came to the state of transportation services for students with special needs. That court oversight expired yesterday, in light of an agreement reached by the plaintiffs and city officials.
The case, known as Petties v. D.C., is one of six remaining class actions filed against the District in recent decades over how officials have provided services and cared for some of its most vulnerable residents, including children with special needs. Although the parties agreed to end court oversight, the case will remain active until after a December 19 fairness hearing on the proposed agreement (PDF) reached by the plaintiffs and the city.
The agreement and pending dismissal is a big win for the city, especially Attorney General Irvin Nathan. Exiting court supervision in the consent decree cases, which officials say are expensive, time-consuming and antithetical to local autonomy, has been among Nathan's top priorities since taking office in 2011. In February, a federal judge ended more than three decades of court oversight in another consent decree case involving the city's mental health system, known as the Dixon case.
The end of court oversight "is a reflection of the great progress and the durable improvements demonstrated by the District," Nathan said in a statement. "We look forward to the ‘fairness’ hearing before the court regarding the dismissal of this nearly two-decades-old case against the District government.” Mayor Vincent Gray (D) praised the "skilled representation" by the attorney general's office, calling yesterday's developments "a major accomplishment for the District government."
Steven Ney, a co-lead class counsel who works as of counsel for University Legal Services, credited the attorney general's office under Nathan with taking a less adversarial approach to resolving Petties and other consent decree cases than his predecessor Peter Nickles. Nickles, now a senior counsel at Covington & Burling, tried to end several of the consent decree cases by challenging them on legal grounds in court, with little success.
"The best way to get rid of these cases is to comply with the law," Ney said. "They're doing what they should have done, rather than filing all kinds of motions and appeals."
Plaintiffs in the Petties case, which was filed in 1995 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, accused city officials of failing to properly manage how special needs students were transported to and from school. It also dealt with the city's problems making timely payments to special education service providers.
The agreement to end court oversight comes on the heels of an October 11 report from David Gilmore, the supervising master appointed to monitor the system, finding that the city was in compliance with performance standards put in place by the court. On October 26, the parties filed a joint motion stating they were ready to move towards dismissal. A status conference was scheduled for October 29, but was postponed to November 8 due to Hurricane Sandy.
At yesterday's hearing, the order appointing Gilmore as the supervising master was allowed to expire. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman indicated that he was ready to give preliminary approval to the joint motion to dismiss the case, but is waiting for lawyers involved to make a few adjustments to the wording of a notice to the class. Ney said he expects the revisions to be filed within the next few days and get the judge's official preliminary approval.
"We appreciate the efforts of the court in sticking with this case for 17 years," Ney said.