The Beginnings of the Pennhurst Case

The abusive, inhumane living conditions of the residents with developmental disabilities at Pennhurst State School and Hospital, in Spring Hill, Pennsylvania, were brought to the public’s attention in 1968 in a five-part television exposé by Bill Baldini called “Suffer the Little Children.” While the airing of the documentary resulted in some improvements, particularly related to the development of early community supports, conditions at Pennhurst continued to deteriorate.

On May 30, 1974 a class action lawsuit was filed in the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of former and current residents of Pennhurst against the institution, its superintendents, and state officials responsible for Pennhurst’s operation. The plaintiffs, represented by prominent civil rights attorney David Ferleger, argued that the institutionalization of the residents violated their constitutional rights under the First, Eighth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as under federal civil rights laws and the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act of 1966. They sought damages and equitable relief, including the closing of Pennhurst, and provision of education, training, and care in community settings.

The Court’s Findings

After a thirty-two day trial, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond J. Broderick found that Pennhurst was overcrowded, understaffed and lacked the programs needed for adequate habilitation. He found that various unwarranted forms of restraints “were used as control measures in lieu of adequate staffing”[1], including seclusion rooms, physical restraints and psychotropic drugs. The physical environment was found to be “hazardous to the residents, both physically and psychologically,”[2]  to the extent that it was “not only not conducive to learning new skills, but it is so poor that it contributes to losing skills already learned.”[3] Residents were found to have been subject to abuse by both other residents and staff.[4]

Judge Broderick ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor. In a wide-ranging opinion, he found that the residents of Pennhurst had three distinct sets of constitutional rights:

1. Right to Habilitation. Citing the Due Process Amendment, the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, as well as cases such as Welsch, Wyatt, and N.Y. State Ass’n for Retarded Children v. Carey (Willowbrook), Judge Broderick held that “Once admitted to a state facility, the residents have a constitutional right to be provided with minimally adequate habilitation under the least restrictive conditions consistent with the purpose of the commitment.”[5]

2. Right to be Free from Harm. Citing the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as cases such as Welsch and N.Y. State Ass’n for Retarded Children v. Carey (Willowbrook), Judge Broderick held that the residents of Pennhurst had the constitutional right to be free from physical harm.

3. Right to Non-Discriminatory Habilitation. Judge Broderick also extended the reasoning of the P.A.R.C. case (recognizing the Constitutional right of children with developmental disabilities to a public education) to the right to habilitation of the residents of Pennhurst. He found that “the confinement and isolation of the retarded in the institution called Pennhurst is segregation in a facility that clearly is separate and not equal.”[6] Judge Broderick ruled that the segregation of the residents of Pennhurst “in an institution in which they have been and are being denied minimally adequate habilitation [violated] their Equal Protection Rights as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.”[7]

The Court determined that each of these rights had been violated by the conditions at Pennhurst. Judge Broderick entered an order requiring Pennhurst to find “suitable community living arrangements” for all of the residents of Pennhurst, “together with such community services as are necessary to provide them with minimally adequate habilitation.”[8] He also established a Special Master to oversee the appropriate placement for each resident and the eventual closure of Pennhurst.


Various aspects of Judge Broderick’s initial ruling continued to be appealed for the next few decades. As he wrote in one opinion in 1985 (about half-way through the proceedings): “No one . . . anticipated that this civil action commenced on May 30, 1974 would be actively litigated for more than ten years, requiring 2,192 docket entries, about 500 Court orders, twenty-eight published opinions, and three arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.”[9] These appeals reversed aspects of Judge Broderick’s initial ruling concerning the rights of the plaintiffs under a federal civil rights statute[10] and Pennsylvania state law under the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution. But Judge Broderick’s holdings on the constitutional rights of the residents of Pennhurst were never overturned. In 1985, while the appeal of those holdings was pending, the parties entered into a settlement agreement providing community living arrangements for the remaining residents of Pennhurst.

Significant for the approval of this settlement was a detailed study by James Conroy, Director of Research of the Developmental Disabilities Center at Temple University, systematically tracking and monitoring the progress of Pennhurst residents who had been placed in community living arrangements under the Court’s prior orders. Dr. Conroy found that:

“The former Pennhurst residents showed significantly faster development growth in the community than they had at Pennhurst. They received more services and more program time at less cost in public dollars. Prior to the transfer of the residents from Pennhurst, over 60 percent of the families surveyed had opposed the transfer. . . . Six months later, the same families overwhelmingly approved of the decision . . . . Measured by a variety of standards, the families generally perceived the happiness of their . . . relatives to be much greater in the [community] than at Pennhurst.”[11]

Almost ten years later, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania moved to modify this settlement based on challenges to some of these constitutional rulings, Judge Broderick cited supervening cases such as the Supreme Court’s decision in Youngberg v. Romeo (also involving a resident of Pennhurst) in rejecting the modification. Pennhurst finally closed in 1987.

Pennhurst Resources and References

Videos and Multimedia Presentations

Evolution of Disability Rights Litigation: Video Interview with David Ferleger

Justice Harry Blackmun: Video Interview

History & Legacy of the Pennhurst Order: Video Interview with Judge Raymond J. Broderick

Photos of Pennhurst State Hospital and School

Suffer the Little Children, Bill Baldini expose of conditions at Pennhurst

Pennhurst Institution Timeline

U.S. Supreme Court Oral Arguments: Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman regarding 11th Amendment Challenge

Articles and Other Secondary Sources

“Disabilities and the Law: The Evolution of Independence” by David Ferleger. The Federal Lawyer. September 2010.

Access to Justice: The Impact of Federal Courts on Disability Rights.” The Federal Lawyer, December 2012.

This article was originally published in the December 2012 issue of The Federal Lawyer and is used with permission.

The Threads that Came Together in the Pennhurst Case: An Interview with Judith Gran, Thomas Gilhool and James Conroy

Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance

Legal References and Documents

Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia

University of Michigan Law School, Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse: Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital

District Court

Finding of Constitutional Violations: 446 F. Supp. 1295 (1977)
Approval of Settlement: 610 F. Supp. 1221 (1985)
Rejection of modification to Judgment on Settlement: 784 F. Supp. 215 (1992)

Court of Appeals
US Court of Appeals: Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital, 49 F.3d 939 (3rd Cir. 1995)
US Court of Appeals: Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital, 673 F.2d 645 (3rd Cir.1982)

U.S Supreme Court
PA State Law and 11th Amendment Challenge: 465 U.S. 89: (1984)

Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act Challenge: 541 U.S. 1 (1981)


  1. ^Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital, 446 F. Supp. 1295, 1306 (E.D. Pa. 1977)
  2. ^Id. at 1308
  3. ^Id.
  4. ^Id. at 1308-1309
  5. ^Id. at 1319
  6. ^Id. at 1321-1322
  7. ^Id. at 1322
  8. ^Id. at 1326
  9. ^Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital, 610 F. Supp. 1221, 1222 (E.D. Pa. 1985)
  10. ^Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1 (1981)
  11. ^Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital, 784 F. Supp. 215, 217 (E.D. Pa. 1992)