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PA Courts to Pay $100,000, Take Measures to Redress Alleged Discrimination Against People with Opioid Use Disorder

by U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Feb 06, 2024

Photo courtesy of Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

United States Attorney Jacqueline C. Romero announced on Thursday, Feb. 1, that the Justice Department has secured an agreement with the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania (UJS) to resolve allegations that UJS courts violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by preventing individuals under court supervision from taking lawfully prescribed medication to treat opioid use disorder (OUD).

Under the agreement, UJS courts will pay $100,000 to victims, encourage all its component courts to adopt new policies, train personnel on the ADA’s anti-discrimination requirements regarding OUD, and report on their compliance efforts.

“My office is dedicated to fighting the opioid epidemic with every tool that we have,” said U.S. Attorney Romero. “That includes enforcing the ADA to remove discriminatory barriers to treatment for OUD. All too often, people taking medication to treat their OUD are subjected to discrimination based on unfounded stigma associated with these medications. It is a violation of the ADA to deny someone access to programs and services simply because they are taking medication their doctors have prescribed to get and keep their OUD in remission. My office will hold entities that violate the ADA’s anti-discrimination protections accountable.”

The settlement agreement resolves the department’s lawsuit against the UJS, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and Blair, Jefferson, Lackawanna, and Northumberland County Courts of Common Pleas. The department’s complaint, filed in 2022, alleged that UJS courts in multiple counties caused significant harm through the enforcement of their discriminatory administrative policies. The department further alleged that those affected by the UJS court policies were put to an agonizing choice: take their medication and face incarceration or termination from their treatment court program or forgo their medication and suffer painful withdrawal symptoms while risking relapse, overdose, and death. As a result, they suffered significant harm. The complaint alleged that the named county courts and other UJS courts had likely harmed many other individuals with OUD through the enforcement of their discriminatory policies.

Under the settlement agreement, the UJS courts will compensate the victims identified in the complaint. They will train all Pennsylvania state court criminal judges and treatment court professionals on the ADA and OUD medication. Several of the named county courts will adopt a robust anti-discrimination policy related to OUD medication. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts will recommend and encourage all other county courts to adopt the same policy. Finally, the UJS courts will report on their efforts to comply with the agreement, including detailing any complaints about access to OUD medication submitted to any UJS courts during the agreement’s two-year term.

“People with opioid use disorder caught up in the criminal justice system should be supported in seeking treatments that can help them attain recovery,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Under this agreement, courts that categorically restricted the use of opioid treatment medication are required to allow people with opioid use disorder to take proven medications that can put them on a path toward recovery and rehabilitation. Ensuring that courts are employing science-driven and data-informed approaches to the opioid crisis is an important priority for the Civil Rights Division. We will continue to enforce our federal civil rights laws, including the ADA, to ensure that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination.”

The settlement agreement announced on Thursday, Feb. 1, advances the Justice Department’s efforts to combat discrimination against individuals with OUD and to remove discriminatory barriers to treatment. The department has issued public guidance and filed statements of interest on the ADA’s protections for those with OUD. It has entered into multiple settlements with jails and prisons to increase access to OUD medication, including recent agreements in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, Eastern Kentucky, and Massachusetts. It has undertaken enforcement efforts to combat discrimination against individuals with OUD in court supervision programs in Massachusetts. It has also entered numerous settlements to address discriminatory barriers to treatment for OUD outside of the criminal justice context, including barriers related to employmentprofessional licensingsocial services, and healthcare.

U.S. Attorney Romero and Deputy Civil Chief for Civil Rights Lauren DeBruicker handled this matter for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in collaboration with attorneys from the Disability Rights Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Middle District of Pennsylvania Assistant United States Attorney and Civil Rights Coordinator Michael J. Butler.

For more information about the Justice Department’s work to address discrimination against individuals with opioid use disorder, please visit https://www.ada.gov/topics/opioid-use-disorder/. For more information on the ADA, please call the Department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (TDD 800-514-0383) or visit www.ada.gov.

Members of the public may report possible civil rights violations at civilrights.justice.gov/report. Anyone in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania may also report civil rights violations to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by calling 215-861-8555 or emailing [email protected].

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