Lawsuit Challenges Utah Guardianship Program

Utah State Flag

by Andy Jones
July 6, 2017

Disability rights advocates filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah on July 6, seeking to block recent changes to the state’s guardianship system that they allege violate procedural due process rights.

Prior to the enactment of H.B. 101, everyone had a right to counsel in guardianship proceedings in the state of Utah. The new law, which went into effect January 1, eliminates this right where the prospective ward is the child of the person seeking guardianship status, and that prospective ward has less than $20,000 in assets.

The lawsuit, filed by the Disability Law Center and two named plaintiffs, argues the changes violate the prospective wards right to a full and fair hearing, in violation of constitutionally protected procedural due process rights.

“Guardianship, like prison, takes away an individual’s freedoms – including the right to travel, to marry, to vote, to have relationships, and to choose one’s home. Aside from the death penalty, there is no greater deprivation of civil liberties,” said Alfred Pfeiffer, a partner at Latham & Watkins, LLP, which along with the ACLU of Utah is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, in the news release.

The lawsuit further argues that the changes constitute a failure to reasonably accommodate these individuals, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Moreover, the advocates argue that the system already systematically violated the Due Process Clause by allowing courts to order prospective wards to pay reasonable attorney fees as part of guardianship litigation.

“The Disability Law Center is a plaintiff in this suit because our members face very unique and serious threats to their liberty and independence when another person seeks legal guardianship over them,” DLC Legal Director Aaron Kinikini said in the news release. “We want to ensure that our members have absolutely every legal protection they deserve when going through the guardianship process.”

The full complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, can be read here [PDF].

Disability Rights Washington and the Disability Law Center are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Washington and Utah, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.