A New Orleans social worker has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit to take on a state law that requires her to overcome “impossible” bureaucratic hurdles to helping families with special-needs children.
The case, known as Newell-Davis v. Phillips, was filed on Jan. 12 in federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The lead defendant, Courtney N. Phillips, is being sued in her official capacity as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health.
The plaintiffs are entrepreneur Ursula Newell-Davis and the business she founded, Sivad Home and Community Services LLC.
Newell-Davis has spent her 20-year career counseling youths with mental health needs and cognitive disabilities, according to a case summary by Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a public-interest law firm that is representing her in the lawsuit, with the assistance of the Pelican Institute.
As a social worker and as a mother to her own special-needs son, Newell-Davis has seen that children with disabilities and their families need support, especially those who come from poorer backgrounds. Because many of these children have parents who work odd hours, including night shifts, they are often left home alone without adult supervision. Leaving children with behavioral problems unsupervised can mean that they fall in with the wrong crowd and turn to criminal activity, according to a case summary provided by PLF.
Newell wants to provide “respite” services, which refers to temporary relief for parents of special needs children or parents of children with mental health challenges. Under Louisiana law, would-be respite providers must undergo a “Facility Need Review” process before they are eligible to apply for a license to operate. To obtain FNR approval, applicants have to convince the Louisiana Department of Health that there’s a “need” for their services.
Believing she could make a difference, she created a business to teach at-risk children basic life skills for a few hours a week while their parents are away. Although Newell-Davis is fully qualified to provide such services, the state will not let her do so until she obtains FNR approval, PLF says.
The FNR process requires providers to prove that they are needed, which PLF says is an “impossible” task. Like the vast majority of those who applied in 2019, Newell-Davis was rejected.
“Requiring would-be providers to prove they are ‘needed’ isn’t about protecting the public health or safety; it’s about insulating existing providers from competition,” said Mollie Riddle, an attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation.
“Given that children are going without services that are essential to their well-being, the stakes are too high for the government to arbitrarily pick who can and cannot enter the market.”
“This [FNR] determination has nothing to do with an applicant’s qualifications or fitness to operate,” according to the legal complaint.
“An applicant may be the most capable, fit, and passionate woman for the job. Yet FNR permits the Department to reject an applicant solely because there are purportedly ‘enough’ businesses already operating. This is simple, unconstitutional economic protectionism.”
“The purpose and effect of FNR is to protect the financial interests of existing providers against competition from upstart entrepreneurs like” Newell-Davis, the complaint states.
“Under the Due Process and Equal Protection provisions of the United States and Louisiana constitutions, the government may not pursue simple economic protectionism, and FNR bears no rational relationship to any other conceivable legitimate government interest. It does not lower costs, ensure adequate supply, or improve quality. Instead, it drives up costs, reduces supply, harms quality, and deprives those most vulnerable—special needs children—of choices when it comes to the care they need.”
Riddle seemed cautiously optimistic about the litigation.
“The courts are extremely deferential to economic regulations, but I think this past year the tremendous job losses that people have experienced may help people to gain an understanding of how important economic freedom is,” the attorney said.
Newell-Davis said she wants to help people.
“The people who denied me don’t know me or my work ethic; they don’t know what I’m capable of,” she said in a statement provided by PLF. “Give me an opportunity and let me help, one child at [a] time.”
The Louisiana Department of Health couldn’t be reached for comment over the holiday weekend.