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Reinforcing Autonomy and Displacing Guardianships with SDMs

Nina A. Kohn, Legislating Supported Decision-Making, 58 Harv. J. on Legislation 313 (2021).

In Legislating Supported Decision-Making, Professor Nina Kohn tackles the deficiencies of the supported decision-making paradigm, beginning with its definition, which varies tremendously depending on who you ask. She defines it as “an umbrella term for processes by which an individual who might otherwise be unable to make his or her own decisions becomes able to do so through support from other people.” (P. 4.) Supported decision-making (or SDM) represents a fundamental shift in the fields of elder law and disability rights. It is an extension of the people-centered approach. SDM promoters claim that it enhances the dignity of individuals with cognitive limitations by permitting decisions to be made with them—rather than for them.

States can and should use SDM in many contexts. Individuals under a guardianship ought to be empowered to participate in decisions about their lives, their healthcare, their financial affairs, and so on. SDM can thereby permit more limited guardianships. Moreover, for higher functioning individuals, SDM can provide an alternative to a guardianship proceeding altogether. Because SDM is less restrictive alternative, it should be preferred to a guardianship whenever feasible.

However, Kohn argues, SDM has fallen short of its aim of providing an alternative to guardianship in several respects. Indeed, SDM agreements may even erode autonomy by limiting the rights of individuals with cognitive limitations to revoke the agreements. In addition, SDM legislation typically treats SDM supporters as non-fiduciaries while providing few if any remedies or rights for the supported individual—while creating “new legal rights for the supporters” (P. 21) (emphasis in original) and third parties.

Kohn’s indictment of SDM implementation is compelling. She notes the convergence of political interests underlying the widespread support for SDM legislation – legislation which, by authorizing SDM agreements, gives them an official imprimatur. She then proceeds to critique the existing ’ shortcomings. Finally, she frames five coherent and straightforward proposals to remedy those failings. I’ll highlight three of them.

First, Kohn proposes, state guardianship statutes ought to “be amended to explicitly prohibit the use of guardianship where supported decision-making would meet the individual’s needs.”(P. 39.) This approach is embedded in the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Other Protective Arrangements Act (or UGCOPAA) approved by the Uniform Laws Commission in 2017, but so far, is enacted in only two states.

Second, Kohn explains: “Despite the common rhetoric used to promote them, [most existing guardianship] statutes do not provide individuals with a right to use supported decision-making.” (P. 18.) Kohn’s point rests on a reality of the legal landscape: The majority of individuals under a guardianship retain a host of rights, including the right to contract. Thus, no enabling statute is required to permit the exercise of this right. Formal legal status (i.e., legislation) is redundant. SDM-enabling legislation can suggest that individuals with cognitive limitations lack the power to make decisions for themselves unless a formal SDM contract appointing a supporter is in place. As a result, legislation which expressly authorizes individuals under guardianships to utilize SDM can actually have the effect of diminishing their autonomy and authority over their own lives.

Thus, Kohn’s second proposal is to promote SDM agreements through the dissemination of forms without any enabling legislation. Stakeholders, state agencies, and non-governmental advocates can simply encourage SDM agreements. A useful form, for example, would identify the parties (the supported party and his or her supporter), address compensation, impose duties, describe the decisions with which the supporter will assist, identify the type of assistance to be provided (e.g., with identifying different options; with evaluating them, etc.), and clarify the overlap between multiple supporters. The form should also – contrary to some examples of SDM legislation – permit the supported person to revoke the agreement at will.

Third, Kohn advances the idea of constructing a public system for supporters, designed along the lines of public guardianship programs. Supporters could be trained and any individuals with disabilities who lack a network of trusted family members could use staff from publicly funded programs for their SDM agreements. Indeed, Kohn suggests, doing so might already be required by federal law pursuant to the mandates of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She notes, “Arguably, when a public entity provides decision-making support to individuals with disabilities only if those individuals are subject to guardianship, the entity violates the ADA by not offering a less restrictive alternative.” (P. 45-46.)

Kohn’s article is a rousing call to action accompanied by a comprehensive battle plan. It should be required reading for disability rights advocates, elder law attorneys, and state legislators everywhere. It is practical, meaningful, and important scholarship.

Cite as: Tom Simmons, Reinforcing Autonomy and Displacing Guardianships with SDMs, JOTWELL (August 16, 2021) (reviewing Nina A. Kohn, Legislating Supported Decision-Making, 58 Harv. J. on Legislation 313 (2021)), https://lex.jotwell.com/reinforcing-autonomy-and-displacing-guardianships-with-sdms/.

Medicaid Algorithmic Opacity and a Transparent Solution

Hannah Bloch-Wehba, Access to Algorithms, 88 Fordham L. Rev. 1265 (2020).

In Access to Algorithms, Professor Bloch-Wehba unleashes both the First Amendment and FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act, along with its state counterparts) on algorithmic governance opacity. She argues that the law of access encompassed by FOIA and the free press clause can help promote a public debate of algorithmic decision-making by governments as well as provide avenues by which individuals–especially under-resourced individuals–might find redress for the sometimes catastrophic output of automated systems.

Algorithmic decision-making in the context of law enforcement (such as sentencing and bail) has been mapped by and Bloch-Wehba’s article touches on algorithmic criminal law determinations here as well. In addition, she unpacks algorithmic operations which affect government employees, specifically using “value-added assessments” to quantify teacher effectiveness, which has been challenged by teachers’ unions. But her attention to algorithmic denials of Medicaid benefits has heretofore received scant attention.1 Especially because elderly Medicaid applicants and recipients seeking long term care benefits are almost by definition under-resourced individuals, the opacity of algorithmic decision-making in this context deserves careful examination. But the very opacity of algorithmic operations which generate denials or reductions of public benefits presents a challenge for scholars as well as the citizens who bear the brunt of the automated decisions.

Governmental decision-makers tend to hold their algorithms close to their chest. Making matters worse, much algorithmic decision-making software is privately controlled. The trend is toward outsourcing. The private companies which develop the algorithms are obviously keen to retain their value and not simply leak their mechanics into the public domain. Secrecy is an even more acute problem when the algorithms themselves are outsourced to and controlled by private vendors. The problems of faulty decisions as well as bias embedded in the machine can be difficult to unearth and correct.

Bloch-Wehba examines two Medicaid examples in reported federal court opinions. In the first, APS Healthcare, Inc., a private “waiver administrator” slashed the Medicaid waiver benefits of a group of West Virginians with severe developmental disabilities. The company’s algorithm generated a budget which allocated benefits to individual Medicaid recipients on a year-by-year basis, using data from interviews and other assessment tools. The actual workings of the algorithm that slashed the plaintiffs’ benefits was proprietary. One plaintiff with cerebral palsy had her benefits cut from $130,000 to $72,000. As a result, she lost her community placement, declined, and became at serious risk to institutionalization.

Before an Administrative Law Judge, the West Virginia plaintiffs’ fair hearing was denied based on deference to the computer program–without investigation into the conclusions it had reached. Thankfully, the district court correctly perceived the procedural due process problems and reversed.

In a second Medicaid case arising in Idaho, plaintiffs challenged the decisions of a secret methodology to set individual budgets for home and community-based waiver benefits. In this case, the algorithm–“an Adult Budget Calculation Tool”–was government-sourced, but the state resisted disclosure of its methodology, claiming it was a trade secret. The state then offered a compromise: it would disclose the reasoning behind the plaintiffs’ benefit reductions but subject to a gag order that would prohibit redisclosure to anyone else. Although the plaintiffs ultimately prevailed, Bloch-Wehba identifies the invocation of a trade secret defense and the state’s “atomized disclosure” settlement offer as “highly problematic.” (P. 1279.)

After detailing the scope of the problem, Bloch-Wehba identifies a creative and effective solution. She emphasizes that the law of access provides a particularly useful tool in de-cloaking government methodologies to deny rights, property, or liberty. The law of access expands standing. It facilitates access to algorithms not only for the directly affected but also the general public–even scholars and journalists.

Here is a uniquely practical solution to a serious problem. One need not be a plaintiff to demand that algorithmic veils of opacity be lifted. She explains: “If the processes for government decision-making were already public, litigants would not have to fight tooth and nail to gain access to an explanation of why their benefits were slashed, their employment was terminated, or their release from prison was delayed.” (P. 1295.) To advance toward these practical ends, she maps the nuances of FOIA exemptions commonly in play in these sorts of contexts.

While undoubtedly practical, at the same time, Access to Algorithms resonates with foundational questions of value and justice. Although “algorithmic governance portends a new era in government decision-making, it must be accompanied by new forms of transparency to protect the vital role of public oversight in our democratic system.” (P. 1314.) Readers of her important article will surely agree.

Cite as: Tom Simmons, Medicaid Algorithmic Opacity and a Transparent Solution, JOTWELL (September 16, 2020) (reviewing Hannah Bloch-Wehba, Access to Algorithms, 88 Fordham L. Rev. 1265 (2020)), https://lex.jotwell.com/medicaid-algorithmic-opacity-and-a-transparent-solution/.

Incapacity Push-Back

Sean M. Scott, Contractual Incapacity and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 123 Dickinson L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2019), available at SSRN.

What happens when a set of longstanding common law assumptions meets an assertive and vigorous civil rights act? Professor Sean Scott examines this question in terms of contractual incapacity and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in her aptly titled Contractual Incapacity and the Americans with Disabilities Act. She confronts the standard application of the doctrine of contractual incapacity in view of the ADA’s wide-ranging aim of upsetting traditional notions of disability and impairment.

To combine these two antagonistic ideas—contractual incapacity and the ADA—Professor Scott first outlines the texts and ambitions of each. Next, she introduces these two unwilling dance partners to one another and demonstrates that particular aspects of the idea of contractual incapacity do in fact undermine both the ADA and the goals of the disability rights movement. She concludes with nudging. She gives the law a small push, suggesting that our legal imaginations might reconsider contractual incapacity against the demands of disability rights activists. It’s a powerful nudge, one which has implications for various populations, from developmentally disabled persons to elderly individuals with dementia.

The contractual incapacity doctrine boasts deep roots, traceable to Roman law and the Visigothic code. The basic idea is that a person lacking the cognitive wherewithal to understand a contract cannot be said to have entered into a contract at all. Incapacity is a defense. When the court finds that one party to a contract lacked capacity, the contract can be void or voidable. Given its ripe age, we might not be surprised to perceive in the doctrine some residue of outmoded and stereotypical tropes.

For example, Professor Scott explains, in contractual incapacity cases, “disability drift” commonly occurs, where “the presence of a physical disability is taken as evidence of a mental one….” (P. 25.) Historically, individuals who were deaf were presumptively “idiots” and therefore unable to contract. Even newer decisions can take disheveled hair or disordered mascara as evidence of mental incapacity. Other cases present individuals with mental disabilities as objects of pity with modifiers such as “tragic,” “lonely,” or “pathetic.” (P. 24.) Another cluster of decisions demonstrates the way judges can view disability as pathology; as something wrong. A pathological/medical vision of disability ignores the roles which societal restrictions and responses to the individual’s disability play. This kind of response can be exacerbated when an individual deviates from societal norms.

Despite the ADA’s attempt to deconstruct the notion of disability by lifting social barriers, the contemporary contractual incapacity doctrine continues to disregard the notion of disability as social construct. The notion that it is the impairment itself coupled with society’s response to it that results in a disability undergirds the ADA. Take away the social construction of the impairment and the affected individual’s barriers recede or even disappear. But focus on the impairment and pathology and there is no space for consideration of the societal aspect of a disability. This then represents a direct collision between the ADA and contractual incapacity as it is currently applied.

Professor Scott also discerns another point of conflict between the ADA and contractual incapacity in the “regarded as” definition of a disability. The ADA actually contains three alternative definitions of “disability.” The first is an actual disability (a substantially limiting mental or physical impairment). The second is a record of having an actual disability. The third is simply being “regarded as” having a disability. The ADA’s “regarded as” definition participates in the disability-as-social-construct notion. Both the statutory definition and this notion are concerned with the disabling effects of stereotypical and outmoded social constructs of disability; disability as pathology, an object of pity, or drift.

The ADA also implicitly rejects uninformed lay diagnoses. Great harm follows assumptions such as the assumption that someone with a stutter cannot possibly understand a complex contract. “Better to leave cognitive diagnoses to medical experts,” the “regarded as” prong seems to say to the American people.

Contractual incapacity cases, meanwhile, are only too quick to rely on lay testimony. Lay testimony routinely invokes questionable evidence such as a party’s idiosyncratic behavior, uncleanliness, or speech irregularities. Moreover, the question of whether one party to the contract “should have known” of the other party’s mental disabilities once again invites a parade of judgmental and archaic observations frequently having little to do with an individual’s actual cognitive limitations.

Here, then, Professor Scott identifies a secondary collision between contractual incapacity and the ADA, within the “regarded as” definition of disability. Professor Scott then proposes a rather radical solution. She rejects the protectionist attitudes of courts’ applications of contractual incapacity. Instead, parties in a breach of contract action would only be permitted to raise incapacity as a defense to enforcement when they had been adjudicated as mentally incompetent (e.g., in a plenary guardianship proceeding). This would drastically limit the incapacity defense to only a handful of cases. The doctrines of undue influence and unconscionability might fill the gaps.

Of course, one consequence of enacting Professor Scott’s proposal would be that a number of individuals with disabilities would be bound to contracts they lacked any capacity to understand. This is no small cost. Professor Scott concedes that she does not intend “to offer a definite solution to a definite problem.” (P. 76.) Rather, her proposal is intended to nudge our thinking and our imaginations in the direction of autonomy and equality for individuals with mental impairments.

Cite as: Tom Simmons, Incapacity Push-Back, JOTWELL (October 11, 2019) (reviewing Sean M. Scott, Contractual Incapacity and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 123 Dickinson L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2019), available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/incapacity-push-back/.

Privacy and Surveillance in Nursing Homes

Karen Levy, Lauren Kilgour, & Clara Berridge, Regulating Privacy in Public/Private Space: The Case of Nursing Home Monitoring Laws, 26 Elder Law J. __ (forthcoming 2018) available at SSRN.

A nursing home can be a dangerous place. Undetected abuse and neglect are common. Frustrated with the inadequacy of government oversight, some families have taken matters into their own hands and installed in-room video monitoring devices. In this way, privatized abuse prevention efforts can identify and rectify that which the camera records. The increasing use of so-called “granny cams” has led to legislative responses in at least six states—Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, and Utah. These statutory frameworks are thoughtfully examined by Karen Levy, Lauren Kilgour, and Clara Berridge in their forthcoming article, Regulating Privacy in Public/Private Space: The Case of Nursing Home Monitoring Laws.

The covert use of technology such as web-enabled video cameras to “peek in” and also preserve evidence of inadequate care, abuse, or exploitation may be well-intentioned. The overt placement of cameras might help to deter abuse from occurring in the first place. Privacy and autonomy concerns, however, might be overlooked. As these three co-authors explain, the interests of the resident, their roommates, their visitors, and their care workers—even, to some degree, the institutions themselves—merit scrutiny: “These multivalent privacy dynamics create a complicated space for law.” (P. 3.) Indeed, this complex relational space has given rise to strikingly varied legislative fixes. Levy, Kilgour, and Berridge study a relatively unstudied problem with sensitivity and thoroughness.

Initially, this article enters the nursing home setting and explores the relational, interdependent nature of privacy in that space. A nursing-home room is an intimate, personal space for the often vulnerable individuals who live in them. In that space, residents (as well as their roommates) may receive personal care. They may share intimacy with their partners. They may be examined by their doctors. They may change clothes. They may masturbate. A nursing home room can also be a private space for parties visiting those individuals, such as their spouses, their children, or even their attorneys. At the same time, a nursing home room is a closely regulated space where states monitor and structure conduct, especially that of staff. “Electronic monitoring in nursing homes, and the rules which regulate it, thus enter a particularly fraught context, in which the aims and targets of privacy protection, and the perceived threats thereto, are multivalent and interact in complex ways.” (P. 6.)

Having detailed the unique privacy intersections within a nursing-home room, the authors next assess how the law has entered that fraught space. Here, the authors deploy a comparative analysis and identify the salient aspects of the varied approaches that six states have taken. While each statutory paradigm permits in-room monitoring devices by a resident or their representative, the authors highlight significant variation in the ways in which competing privacy interests are balanced. Some states delineate notification and consent forms. Some attempt to police against institutional retaliation. Some require signage or ban covert cameras. Some permit roommates to switch rooms when a camera is introduced. Some constrain the positioning (e.g., allowing only fixed-position cameras) and precision (e.g., focus, volume, etc.) of data collection. New Mexico requires data encryption when a monitoring device is web-enabled. Utah simply bans any device which can transmit recordings. State approaches lack uniformity in addressing the admissibility of recordings in judicial or administrative proceedings. Abuse-reporting requirements and liability limitations vary as well.

Finally, the authors map privacy relationships within these legislative approaches. A significant number of nursing home residents may lack the capacity to consent to in-room monitoring or to condition consent upon limitations. The majority of the statutes analyzed by the authors confirm that a resident’s fiduciary (such as an agent or a guardian) can consent to recording on the resident’s behalf. Washington, interestingly, permits residents’ representatives to authorize visual video monitoring, but not audio, absent a court order.

Sadly, the most common perpetrators of elder abuse are adult children and spouses. These are the individuals typically acting as elderly individuals’ representatives. As a result, the most likely perpetrators are the ones collecting recordings. For the most part, states have failed to account for potential abuse by a representative. Mistreatment by a representative is unlikely to be captured by a monitoring device, and if it is, the representative controls the captured data. Indeed, a representative might use embarrassing footage to intimidate or extort. This potential for misuse must be carefully balanced against gains in documenting abuse by nursing home staff or others, but so far it hasn’t been adequately considered.

Regulating Privacy in Public/Private Space: The Case of Nursing Home Monitoring Laws is an important and elucidating discussion of these kinds of important policy issues. Its comparative mapping could serve as an effective guide to future legislative efforts. And its explication of competing privacy interests demonstrates a mature sorting of recurring intersections of human interests in the nursing home space. I recommend it.

Cite as: Tom Simmons, Privacy and Surveillance in Nursing Homes, JOTWELL (October 8, 2018) (reviewing Karen Levy, Lauren Kilgour, & Clara Berridge, Regulating Privacy in Public/Private Space: The Case of Nursing Home Monitoring Laws, 26 Elder Law J. __ (forthcoming 2018) available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/privacy-and-surveillance-in-nursing-homes/.

Dispensing (With) Electronic Wills

John H. Langbein, Absorbing South Australia’s Wills Act Dispensing Power in the United States: Emulation, Resistance, Expansion, 38 Adelaide L. Rev. 1 (2017), available at SSRN.

Yale’s Professor Emeritus John Langbein, who introduced the harmless error idea to will formality requirements a few decades back, returns to the place where it all began in Absorbing South Australia’s Wills Act Power in the United States: Emulation, Resistance, Expansion. It began, legislatively speaking, in South Australia. In 1975, South Australia’s State Parliament enacted a statute validating wills with formality defects so long as it was proved that the decedent intended the document to be her will. This “dispensing power” idea soon infected other common law nations, including the United States. Now, a new chapter is being written as a fresh trend emerges: making bequests via electronic technology.

Following a concise review of the common law world’s absorption of Australia’s innovation, sustained through legislative activity, case law, and scholarship, Langbein turns to “a completely unforeseen development – the enforcement of so-called digital or electronic wills.” (P. 1.) A harmless error in the execution of a will should not result in invalidation if there is convincing evidence that the decedent truly intended the document in question to constitute her will. A defect in the “line of sight” or “conscious presence” requirements for witness attestation, for example, ought not to invoke intestacy where other evidence convinces us that the decedent was trying to make a valid will. Today, we are beginning to see a new variety of technically deficient wills – paperless ones. Is the harmless error doctrine equipped to deal with digitized bequests? Or is a new framework for electronic wills necessary? Langbein deftly considers these important questions in this compulsively readable reprinting of a lecture he delivered in Australia in 2017.

The Uniform Law Commission recently created a drafting committee to respond to the phenomenon of digital testation. The Committee’s first drafting meeting memo neatly sums of the issue: Why not electronic wills? After all, “everything else is electronic.” Langbein concurs, noting that many individuals are so acclimated to digital forms of communication “that they seldom encounter sheets of paper in their daily lives.” (P. 9.)

Two variations of digital wills should be identified. In the first instance, an individual makes an electronic document with word processing software saved on a tablet, a phone, or a USB stick. In the second, a decedent has left either an audio or video recording of a testamentary plan; a DVD will. Although merely oral wills are invalid in most jurisdictions (and where they are recognized, they’re strictly limited to situations such as deathbed bequests), Langbein has collected a few cases holding DVD wills to be valid. True, a DVD disc might not be what we typically think of as a “document.” Yet it is a tangible form of the communication intentionally preserved so that its form survives its creation. And given the liberal construction given to remedial legislation such as harmless error statutes, a DVD could be treated as a kind of document.

With word processing wills, we’re on more familiar ground. Especially where the wording of the file strongly suggests testamentary intent (e.g., “This is my last will and testament”) and something akin to a signature can be located, the harmless error rule is comfortably stationed. Some states have legislatively endorsed electronic wills. In Nevada, testamentary bequests created and saved as an electronic record are valid. The statute, however, also imposes a new formality likely to foul up do-it-yourselfers: an “authentication characteristic” (which might be, for example, a retinal scan or fingerprint). Langbein notes: “It is particularly ironic that the dispensing power, which has opened the way to enforcing digital wills by excusing noncompliance with the traditional Wills Act formalities, is begetting new formalities.” (P. 11.) Harmless error begets digital wills which beget new formalities, which harmless error doctrine can excuse.

If a framework specifically designed for digital wills is appropriate, one of the more difficult issues to resolve will be revocation formalities. In traditional wills land, a will may be revoked either by a later will or by a physical act of revocation performed on the instrument itself, such as tearing or burning. The first category of revocations can be easily implemented with digital wills, but what of physical acts of revocation? “Suppose,” Langbein posits, “that the testator who has drafted a computer will erases it, but a software expert is able to recover from the text from the hard drive?” (P. 11.)

Professor Langbein’s article tracks the problems of these computer wills. He confesses, “I would be quite content if this intrusion into the accustomed patterns of testation were not happening.” (P. 11.) The frequency with which individuals attempt to make a testamentary disposition with digital technology will only increase, however. E-bequests will continue. Harmless error doctrine can – and is – handling some cases, but as the frequency increases, legislation specifically crafted for E-bequests will be inevitable.

Cite as: Tom Simmons, Dispensing (With) Electronic Wills, JOTWELL (April 5, 2018) (reviewing John H. Langbein, Absorbing South Australia’s Wills Act Dispensing Power in the United States: Emulation, Resistance, Expansion, 38 Adelaide L. Rev. 1 (2017), available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/dispensing-with-electronic-wills/.