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In Re A.T.;

December 16, 2010


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (MRE-17-09) (Hon. Linda Kay Davis, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Oberly, Associate Judge:

Argued October 26, 2010

Before KRAMER and OBERLY, Associate Judges, and BELSON, Senior Judge.

The District of Columbia appeals from the Superior Court's January 4, 2010, Findings of Fact, Conclusion of Law, and Order of Admission, which granted A.T.'s "Petition for Admission of a Mentally Retarded Person," and ordered that A.T. be admitted to a Department on Disability Services ("DDS") facility for the provision of residential habilitation. On appeal, the District argues, first, that the trial court had no authority to conduct a de novo hearing to determine whether A.T. fit within the statutory definition of "mentally retarded," after DDS had already determined that she did not and, second, that under the correct, deferential standard for review of agency decisions, DDS's determination that A.T. was ineligible for services should have been affirmed. In the alternative, the District argues that, if this court does not overturn the Superior Court's de novo review of DDS's administrative decision, then we should hold that the Superior Court erred when it held that a current diagnosis of mental retardation is not a prerequisite for obtaining residential habilitation services. We hold that the trial judge exceeded her authority in conducting a de novo review of DDS's decision, and that DDS did not improperly deny services to A.T. Accordingly, we need not reach DDS's argument that a current diagnosis of mental retardation is a prerequisite to eligibility for services.


A. The Statute

The Mentally Retarded Citizens Constitutional Rights and Dignity Act of 1978 (the "Act") defines "mental retardation" as "a substantial limitation in capacity that manifests before 18 years of age and is characterized by significantly subaverage intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with 2 or more significant limitations in adaptive functioning." D.C. Code § 7-1301.03 (19) (2008 Repl.). The intent of the Council was to "(1) Assure that [District residents] with mental retardation shall have all the civil and legal rights enjoyed by all other citizens of [the District] and the United States; (2) Secure for each resident . . . with mental retardation, regardless of ability to pay, such habilitation as will be suited to the needs of the person . . . ; (3) Encourage and promote the development of the ability and potential of each person with mental retardation in the District to the fullest possible extent, no matter how severe his or her degree of disability; (4) Promote the economic security, standard of living and meaningful employment of persons with mental retardation; (5) Maximize the assimilation of persons with mental retardation into the ordinary life of the community in which they live; and (6) Provide a mechanism for the identification of persons with mental retardation at the earliest age possible." D.C. Code §§ 7-1301.02 (a)(1)-(6). "Habilitation" is defined as "the process by which a person is assisted to acquire and maintain those life skills which enable him or her to cope more effectively with the demands of his or her own person and of his or her own environment . . . and to raise the level of his or her physical, intellectual, social, emotional and economic efficiency." It "includes, but is not limited to, the provision of community-based services." D.C. Code § 7-1301.03 (14). DDS is charged with providing habilitation services to all District residents who fit within the Act's definition of mental retardation.

There are only two ways to obtain residential habilitation under the Act: through voluntary admission or involuntary commitment. For voluntary admission, which is at issue in this case, any individual "14 years of age or older who has mental retardation, may have mental retardation, or has been diagnosed with mental retardation may apply to a Director of a facility for voluntary admission to that facility for habilitation and care. The Director may admit the individual; provided, that the Director has determined that the individual is at least 14 years of age." D.C. Code § 7-1303.02 (a). If there is a substantial question as to the voluntariness of the admission or the individual's competency to admit himself or herself, the Act instructs the Superior Court to conduct promptly "a hearing . . . to resolve the issues of competency and/or voluntariness." § 7-1303.02 (c)(3). Notably, these are the only two issues the Act empowers the court to address in deciding a petition for voluntary admission; it does not contain any provision authorizing the court to make its own finding of mental retardation.

B. A.T.'s Application For Voluntary Admission

A.T. and her older sister, L.T., were removed from their parents' home in 2002, following allegations of child abuse and neglect, and were committed to the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency ("CFSA"). During the course of neglect proceedings in Family Court, "CFSA indicated that . . . separating them would adversely affect their well-being." A.T. "has difficulties in adaptive functioning," and her disabilities "severely [affect] her capacity to understand social interactions, plan ahead, organize herself, and self-monitor." She requires supervision when doing chores such as "washing clothes, doing the dishes, sweeping and cleaning [her] room. . . ." A.T.'s doctors have stated that, because of her disabilities, A.T. "is very vulnerable for exploitation." In 2005, when A.T. was sixteen, Dr. David Missar, a clinical psychologist, assessed her IQ to be 73, and diagnosed her as having Pervasive Developmental Disorder ("PDD"), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"), and Combined Type Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder. Importantly for this case, Dr. Missar did not at that time diagnose her as mentally retarded.

In 2007, in anticipation of L.T.'s twenty-first birthday, Superior Court Judge Linda Kay Davis ordered DDS to appear in the sisters' neglect cases for purposes of transitioning them into the DDS system, because each sister would age out of CFSA upon turning twenty-one. DDS determined that L.T. qualified for services from the Developmental Disabilities Administration ("DDA"), one of the agencies through which DDS provides habilitation services to eligible District residents. To avoid separating the sisters, Judge Davis ordered that L.T. remain at the CFSA-licensed group home until A.T. was ready to transition to DDS, in January 2010.

In August 2008, CFSA submitted an intake application to DDS on A.T.'s behalf, seeking housing, day programming, and case management, to begin on her twenty-first birthday. A.T.'s application did not state that she had been diagnosed with mental retardation, only PDD. CFSA also submitted two psychological evaluations that had been conducted during A.T.'s neglect case. The first was Dr. Missar's 2005 evaluation, diagnosing her with, inter alia, PDD and an IQ of 73. The other evaluation was performed by clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Gilliard, in April 2008, when A.T. was nineteen. Dr. Gilliard diagnosed her with PDD, ADHD, Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder, and a mathematics disorder. Dr. Gilliard estimated A.T.'s IQ to be 98, which is considered within the average range of functioning.

A.T. received a Notice of Determination on September 10, 2008, advising that she was ineligible for DDA services, but informing her that she could request a review of the decision, orally or in writing, by sending a written request to the Intake Chief within fifteen working days. At CFSA's urging, A.T. was referred to DDS's consulting psychologist, Dr. Tonya Lockwood, for an additional evaluation. Dr. Lockwood tested A.T. in December 2008, and placed her IQ score at 81, which put A.T. in the "low average range of cognitive functioning." Dr. Lockwood found that A.T. had "mild deficits in adaptive functioning" but did not "meet the diagnostic criteria . . . for mental retardation."

In January 2009, A.T.'s doctors sent a letter to DDS, requesting that she be made eligible for DDA services because "of her difficulties in adaptive functioning that include deficits in self-care, learning, self-direction, capacity for independent living and economic self-sufficiency. . . ." The letter listed A.T.'s diagnoses, and stated that "[i]n spite [of] having normal intellectual functioning, [A.T.] has difficulty applying basic knowledge to her daily life . . . . At present it is not expected that [A.T.] will ever be [able] ...

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