Oklahoma's Supreme Court declines to hear DHS lawsuit settlement challenge

The high court denied a request to assume jurisdiction in a lawsuit that challenged whether a three-member board acted properly in approving a modified settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the Department of Human Services.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: February 7, 2012
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The state Supreme Court without comment Monday denied hearing a lawsuit that challenged whether a three-member board acted properly in approving a modified settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit that accused the state Department of Human Services of harming children in its foster homes and state shelters.

The decision was unanimous.

Jerry Fent, who filed the legal challenge, said the agreement made by the state Contingency Review Board is illegal because the two legislative members on the panel violated the state Constitution's separation of powers.

State attorneys said the action by the Contingency Review Board, made up of the governor and the leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate, is constitutional.

The agreement by the board since has been approved by both the DHS commissioners and Children's Rights, a New-York based group that filed the federal lawsuit in 2008. A federal judge gave preliminary approval to the agreement last month; a hearing on the settlement is set for Feb. 29 in Tulsa federal court.

Fent said the action by the Contingency Review Board is invalid because it is tainted by House Speaker Kris Steele and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman being on the panel. He said Gov. Mary Fallin is the only one who can serve legally on the panel.

He said he was not asking the federal judge to reject the settlement, which among other things calls for the creation of a panel of three out-of-state child welfare experts who will approve and oversee the plan of improvement to Oklahoma's child welfare system.

State law calls for the Contingency Review Board to consider settlement agreements of more than $250,000 when the Legislature is not in session. Lawmakers returned Monday for this year's four-month session.