Pay for Lawyers, But Not Services? John's Story
*The name of the individual has been changed to protect their identity
John was a teenager with autism who had some significant behavioral challenges. He couldn’t be left alone and needed to be with a caregiver who understood his needs. Part of his caregiver’s salary was funded through respite services at John’s regional center. The caregiver had to submit a timesheet each month to a respite agency.
On March 23, 2012, the owner of the respite agency locked up his office and fled the country after being under investigation by several state and federal agencies for labor violations and child abuse. Many in the disability community knew that this agency was under investigation and likely was conducting illegal activities. But the regional center continued to give the agency an enormous amount of business, including the majority of its respite clients.
For John’s caregiver, it became a personal crisis. She had already worked for three weeks that month but had no agency to pay her. As a low-income worker, she depended on this money to live. John’s parents felt terrible and paid the caregiver directly and requested a reimbursement from their regional center for several hundred dollars.
Despite the fact that the regional center was going to pay for these services through the respite agency anyway, with additional fees added, the regional center service coordinator denied payment for the reimbursement. Despite the fact that these services were already authorized through John’s Individual Program Plan (IPP), the regional center due process coordinator told the parents that they can’t ask for a reimbursement without asking permission first.
John’s parents decided to take their request to a hearing before an administrative law judge, who ruled in John’s favor and ordered the regional center to reimburse the family. But the regional center dug in their heals. They appealed the judge’s ruling to Superior Court, and now things started to get very expensive.
In Superior Court, both the family and the regional center must use attorneys. They are required to file extensive documents and produce evidence. Because of the significant expense, most families aren’t able to appeal to Superior Court. (In special education cases, school districts are required to pay the legal fees if they lose a case. Not so with regional centers.) Thus, regional centers find it easy to threaten to go to Superior Court in order for families to give up.
But, in this case, John’s family was able to obtain a pro bono attorney to represent them. Now the regional center needed to get a lawyer too.
The Superior Court judge ultimately agreed with the previous ruling and ordered the regional center to reimburse the family the several hundred dollars. But he went a step further. He found the behavior of the regional center – and the fact that they forced the family to go to Superior Court – to be excessive and against the public interest. He ordered the regional center to pay for John’s legal fees, which came to tens of thousands of dollars. And this was in addition to the legal fees the regional center needed to pay for its own attorneys.
Instead of just paying a few hundred dollars for services that were already authorized, this regional center, which is funded exclusively by federal and state tax dollars, chose to hire lawyers whose fees would exceed what was owed to the family within a couple of hours of work. To prove a point, the regional center cost California taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. While a complaint was filed with DDS about this issue, no one was held accountable. In fact, the regional center staff member who orchestrated the entire process got a promotion.