Our 15 for 15 campaign has highlighted a variety of advocacy tools used by DRNC to protect people with disabilities. Today (Day 11) features one of our most powerful tools – litigation.

Successful litigation requires substantial effort and resources. DRNC takes very few individual cases to court. Instead, we work smart to develop strategies that create needed changes for many people in a single case. This is called systemic or impact litigation. DRNC develops lawsuits that have the potential to change policies and state laws to improve the lives of many people with disabilities. For example, we pursue cases to change how the State of North Carolina provides support to people with disabilities. DRNC became a nonprofit agency, independent from the state government, 15 years ago. As a result, we can be more powerful advocates by challenging the State in court to advance and defend the rights of disabled people.

Litigation is rarely our first step – but we are not afraid to use this effective strategy. Litigation is high stakes, visible, and often “newsworthy.” But when DRNC wins a case, our work is far from over. When we reach a favorable settlement or a judge rules in our favor, the resistance usually continues. We must monitor the outcome and make sure our clients receive the hard-won changes we fought for. This can go on for many years and may require that we go back to court for enforcement.

DRNC is powerful in the courtroom representing people pro bono, which means without charge. The people we represent are everyday people who do not have the resources it takes to dismantle widespread ableism or change discriminatory policies and practices. DRNC’s ability to take on cases against large companies and state agencies to pursue justice on behalf of people with disabilities is directly tied to our ability to raise the funds we need to represent people pro bono.

Our litigation counsel, Lisa Grafstein and Holly Stiles, are fully dedicated to using litigation as a strategy to move the law forward for disabled people. They are forces to be reckoned with and work tirelessly with our staff attorneys, partners and clients.

Below are 15 of DRNC’s groundbreaking cases over the past 15 years that illustrate the depth and breadth of disability rights victories DRNC has achieved. This is just snapshot of the work we have done and continue to do to advance and defend the rights of people with disabilities in North Carolina.

Marlo M. Ex Rel. Parris v. Cansler (2010)

  • Issue: People with disabilities forced to live in institutions against their will
  • Outcome: First Olmstead case brought by DRNC. Launched our advocacy work to ensure people with disabilities have choices and access to community resources.

U.S. v. North Carolina (US Department of Justice Complaint – 2010)

  • Issue: People with disabilities illegally institutionalized in adult care homes and other improper settings
  • Outcome: First systemic Olmstead effort in NC. DRNC investigations and complaint led to ongoing DOJ settlement agreement requiring the transition of people with mental health disabilities from institutions to community-based services.

DRNC v. The Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital Operating Corporation, d/b/a Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital (2013)

  • Issue: DRNC denied access to records about a physical restraint at the hospital resulting in a patient death
  • Outcome: First Access Authority case in NC. Granted DRNC access to peer reviewed records, enforcing P&A responsibilities as mandated by federal law

Pashby v. Cansler (2013)

  • Issue: NC’s institutional bias favored people receiving services in facilities, rather than at home
  • Outcome: Established that NC cannot favor institutional care over care in the community. Created US Fourth Circuit precedent that putting someone at risk for institutionalization makes the state liable for Olmstead claims, and that adult care homes are institutional settings.

Wilson v. Thomas (NC Department of Motor Vehicles – 2014)

  • Issue: Drivers with disabilities required to submit to discriminatory medical reviews and additional testing to maintain driver license
  • Outcome: Overhaul of the medical review program to stop unnecessary testing and create new procedures drivers could use to disagree with DMV licensure decisions based on disability. This case was the first federal case recognizing DRNC’s associational standing to obtain systemic relief for all people with disabilities and not just for those named in the complaint.

DRNC v. Wos (2014)

  • Issue: DHHS failed to allow people to obtain/maintain employment without losing Medicaid benefits
  • Outcome: DHHS was ordered to implement a category of Medicaid eligibility known as Health Coverage for Workers with Disabilities, which allowed hundreds of people with disabilities to maintain healthcare coverage while employed.

Jacobs v. NC Administrative Office of the Courts (2015)

  • Issue:  Person with a disability discriminated/retaliated against at work for requesting accommodation
  • Outcome: Recognized “interacting with others” as a major life activity for which employees with autism, anxiety, and other disabilities may request reasonable accommodations at work. Client would not have been able to pursue her case if not for DRNC’s ability to provide free legal representation.

Elmendorf v. Duke University (2015)

  • Issue: Student with a learning disability denied accessible books and educational materials, despite university’s promise to accommodate
  • Outcome: Recognition that misleading a student about accommodations available at a postsecondary school can be the basis for claims of unfair trade practices and negligent misrepresentation, which entitle a student to monetary relief from the school.

LS, et al v. Brajer, et al (2015)

  • Issue: The NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and its Local Management Entity/Managed Care Organization (LME/MCO) contractor illegally reduced benefits of Medicaid beneficiaries during their plan year
  • Outcome: Determined that a mid-year reduction in benefits violated due process rights. Established a right to due process before services are cut. Additionally, this case held because DHHS is the single state agency responsible for Medicaid, it is responsible for the actions of the LME/MCOs, its contractors. DRNC represented a class of disabled people along with the National Health Law Program (NHeLP) and the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy (CCLA).

Sanderson v. Bruce R. Tripp, Jr., DDS, P.A. et al (2015)

  • Issue: Dentist refused service to a Deaf woman because she requested an interpreter for her appointment
  • Outcome: Interpreters are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). DHHS must ensure providers who accept Medicaid abide by the ADA. In settling, the state agreed to set up a grievance process for people who allege their Medicaid provider is refusing accommodations.

Wiker v. Advanced Foot & Ankle Center, PC, et al (2017)

  • Issue: Podiatrist refused services to person accompanied by a service dog to appointment
  • Outcome: The judge ordered a large network of healthcare providers in the Piedmont to change their policies so that disabled people with service dogs can access services. In addition, the judge required the provider to pay our client money damages. This ruling enforced the requirement under disability rights laws that service animals be allowed in any part of a medical facility where a human companion would be allowed to go with a patient.

Shelly Stephens v. Youth Villages, Inc. (2018)

  • Issue: Social Worker denied employment because employer required a driver’s license, even though the prospective employee had  transportation
  • Outcome: Employer changed its policies and application process, removing requirement for driver’s license. This case demonstrated an invisible barrier for many disabled people who were discouraged from applying for jobs that they are otherwise qualified for.

Taliaferro v. NC Board of Elections (2021)

  • Issue: Inaccessible paper absentee ballots denied blind voters private and independent access to voting
  • Outcome: State Board of Elections is required to provide blind voters access to an accessible online voting portal to request, cast, and return their absentee ballot, to create procedures for blind and low vision voters to obtain voting accommodations, and provide accessible versions of all materials published by Board of Elections.

NC NAACP v. Cooper (2021)

  • Issue: NC prisons crowded without adequate COVID-19 protections, with potential increased death rates
  • Outcome: DRNC and NAACP-NC, ACLU-NC, Forward Justice, and Emancipate NC sued the State and obtained a settlement agreement requiring the release of 3,500 prisoners through early release and other programs, in addition to other safety and reporting requirements.

Samantha R., et al v. North Carolina, et al (Ongoing)

  • Issue: People with disabilities institutionalized without option to live and access supports in the community
  • Outcome: Judge ruled NC is violating Olmstead by subjecting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to unnecessary institutionalization and risk of institutionalization. Remedying this violation is an ongoing process. This is the first case under NC’s Persons with Disabilities and Protection Act to recognize that institutionalization of people with disabilities violates NC law.