Article 17-A of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (“SCPA”) governs guardianship proceedings of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (“Ward”) in New York State. When describing the powers of guardians appointed pursuant to Article 17-A, typically the powers are plenary, or “complete”, decision-making powers over their Ward. While the statute does provide for the power to appoint a limited guardian of the property, generally the powers are not tailored to the specific individual and the statute is limited in the ability to tailor the powers of a 17-A guardian. This is in contrast to Article 81 guardianships, which generally govern elderly or disabled adults with “functional limitations” that impede their ability to provide for their own personal and financial needs. Under Article 81, the statute specifically acknowledges that the needs of persons with incapacities are diverse and complex, and thus provides a mechanism for creating powers uniquely tailored to the individual’s needs.
The inability to tailor the guardianship powers conferred pursuant to Article 17-A has raised serious questions regarding the statute’s constitutionality. Since the creation of the “Olmstead Cabinet” in 1999, which sought to reform Article 17-A, no substantive legislative action has been taken to revise Article 17-A to allow for tailoring the powers conferred to a guardian over his or her Ward. Consequently, in recent years, courts have faced issues regarding substituted versus supported decision-making powers. On February 15, 2019, the Second Circuit issued its decision in Disability Rights N.Y. v. New York, ___ F.3d ___, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 4587 (2d Cir Feb. 15, 2019, No. 17-2812-cv)(“Disability Rights”), affirming the decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to abstain from hearing a matter which challenged the constitutionality of Article 17-A and in essence sought to have the federal courts impede the normal course of proceedings in the state courts.
In Disability Rights, Disability Rights New York (“DRNY”) brought an action in District Court against the State of New York, its court system and its Chief Judge and Chief Administrative Judge (“Defendants”), alleging constitutional and other deficiencies in the manner in which New York Surrogate’s Courts conduct Article 17-A guardianship proceedings and seeking to enjoin the defendants from appointing legal guardians pursuant to Article 17-A. Id.at *2, *6. Specifically, DRNY asked the District Court to declare that Article 17-A violates the Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”). DRNY also sought an injunction “requiring defendants to take certain actions in Article 17A guardianship proceedings, such as providing notice, applying a certain burden of proof, and providing substantive and procedural rights equal to those provided in Article 81 proceedings.” Id. at *5-6. The District Court, however, abstained from hearing the case, granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed DRNY’s Complaint, holding that DRNY’s claims “require a federal court to refuse to exercise its jurisdiction in deference to state courts.” Id.at *7. DRNY appealed to the Second Circuit, alleging that the District Court erred in abstaining. The Second Circuit, however, determined that the District Court correctly abstained, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488 (1974).
DRNY’s requested relief asked the federal courts to direct the New York State Unified Court System, the Chief Judge of the State of New York, and the Chief Administrative Judge for the Courts of New York to: “(1) notify all current Article 17A wards of their right to request modification or termination of their guardianship order, (2) hold proceedings that provide augmented substantive and procedural rights ‘no less than’ those of Article 81 proceedings, and (3) cease future Article 17A adjudications ‘until defendants ensure that the proceedings provide substantive and procedural rights’ on par with those of Article 81 proceedings.” Id. at *5-6, *14. In addition, DRNY asked that the District Court declare that Article 17-A violates the Constitution, the ADA, and Section 504. Judge Chin explained that such relief would effect an ongoing, impermissible audit of New York Surrogate’s Court proceedings.
Because the Federal Court has “‘no power to intervene in the procedures of the state courts’ and cannot ‘legislate and engraft new procedures upon existing state … practices,’ the district court correctly abstained from exercising jurisdiction” in Disability Rights. Id.at *14-15. The Second Circuit also held that the District Court correctly abstained from exercising jurisdiction even as to DRNY’s request for a declaration that Article 17-A is unconstitutional and violative of the ADA and Section 504, since declaratory judgment “will result in precisely the same interference with and disruption of state proceedings that the longstanding policy limiting injunctions was designed to avoid.” Id.at *16. Judge Chin emphasized, however, that the Court’s holding does not preclude DRNY from seeking “sufficient review in state court and, if needed, the Supreme Court of the United States.” Id.at *17-18.
Disability Rights is not DRNY’s first action against the aforementioned defendants on these same grounds. For example, in Disability Rights N.Y. v. New York State, 2017 US Dist. LEXIS 222629 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 16, 2017), DRNY filed an action against the aforementioned defendants alleging that Article 17-A was unconstitutional, violative of various federal laws, and “invalid on its face because it does not expressly mandate the full panoply of procedures and protections required under Article 81.” Id.at *1-2. Judge Hellerstein found that DRNY’s injunction “would improperly interfere with state judicial proceedings,” therefore, he abstained and dismissed DRNY’s complaint. Id.at *6-7. Like Judge Chin, Judge Hellerstein noted that the holding did not preclude DRNY from challenging the constitutionality of Article 17-A in state court. Id. at *7.
The Federal Courts’ position on DRNY’s challenges to the constitutionality of Article 17-A, a state law, is to abstain from reaching the merits of the case and to direct DRNY to raise those issues in the appropriate state courts. Thus, for now, it appears that despite growing debate regarding whether there is a need to tailor Article 17-A guardianship powers, absent state legislative action or a state court ruling, Article 17-A will remain in effect in its current form. If you are a parent or interested party considering obtaining guardianship over another individual, we encourage you to reach out to the attorneys at Fitzgerald & Sadove PLLC to discuss what course of action is best for your loved one.