Massachusetts top court allows electric shock therapy for disabled patients

The John Adams Courthouse stands in Boston

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) - A Massachusetts institution for the developmentally disabled can continue to use controversial electric shock devices to address aggressive or self-harming behavior in residents, the state's highest court ruled Thursday, though it left the door open to future challenges.

In a unanimous ruling Thursday, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld a 2018 lower court ruling that the state acted in bad faith in regulating the Canton-based Judge Rotenberg Educational Center. JRC, which provides education and treatment to people with development disabilities and behavioral disorders, is the only institution in the country to use the treatment.

The lower court judge, Katherine Field of Bristol County Probate Court, had found that high-ranking officials at the state's Department of Developmental Services in 2010 altered a report by staff to remove a finding that JRC was in "substantial compliance" with state requirements, and that the department in 2011 tried to impose a moratorium on the use of shock treatment for new patients without reviewing scientific evidence.

The department has for decades sought to end the shock therapy treatment, which is supported by families of residents who say it is the only option for loved ones who would otherwise need to be constantly sedated or restrained.

"The ruling ensures that the lifesaving, court approved electrical stimulation device treatment remains available to those for whom all other treatment options have been tried and failed," Michael Flammia, a lawyer for JRC, said in a statement.

The department and a lawyer for the families did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Justice Scott Kafker wrote in the court's opinion that the issue was "heart-wrenching," and that the state could take further action based on new facts in the future.

The legal fight over the facility began in 1985, when the state sought to ban the shock treatment. JRC and families of residents sued, and the case resulted in a consent decree in 1987 that allowed the treatment to continue.

In 2013, the state sought to terminate the consent order altogether, before Judge Field's ruling in 2018 that it was still necessary because of state regulators' bad faith conduct.

A federal appeals court in 2021 ruled in a separate case that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could not ban the shock device.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Deepa Babington)