ADA Mandates Deaf Access to the Criminal Justice System

Before we get to the blog entry of the week, a housekeeping matter. I will be out of the office from Friday evening and returning late Tuesday. So, a blog entry for the week after this will come up later in that week rather than earlier to middle of the week as is usually the case.

 

Our case of the day is Luke v. State of Texas, here, a published decision from August 19, 2022. The case asked the question about whether denying a culturally deaf individual, Deaf, an interpreter during his criminal proceedings violates the ADA. The Fifth Circuit holds that it does. As usual the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; court’s reasoning on sovereign immunity and that Luke did adequately state a claim for violating title II of the ADA; and thoughts/takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to concentrate on any or all of the categories.

 

I

Facts

 

Like many Deaf individuals, Luke has trouble speaking and reading English. He also has difficulty lip reading. In order to effectively communicate, Luke requires an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.

 

Such an interpreter was never provided during Luke’s case for marijuana possession. No interpreter was provided the night of his arrest during a traffic stop, even though his mother, who was watching the scene via FaceTime, urged the officers to provide him with one. No interpreter was present when Luke was booked and detained at Lee County Jail. Nor was one present when a Lee County justice of the peace arraigned him and released him on bond. No interpreter ever explained to Luke his legal rights, the charges against him, or the terms and conditions of his bail.

 

The county court said that an interpreter would be provided for the hearing at which Luke was going to plead guilty in exchange for one year of probation. But the court did not follow through on that commitment. Instead, it insisted that Luke’s mother, who has only basic knowledge of sign language, interpret for her son during the hearing. Thus, no qualified interpreter ever explained to Luke the terms of his probation.

 

Luke’s experience on probation, which began with Lee County’s Community Supervision Corrections Department but was later transferred to San Jacinto County’s, was more of the same. Neither department provided Luke with an interpreter for his meetings with probation officers. Just like at the hearing, the probation officers instead had Luke’s mother interpret for him. No qualified interpreter ever explained to Luke what happened during those meetings or whether he was satisfying the terms of his probation.

 

Contending that the lack of interpreters left him “isolated and confused” during the criminal proceedings, Luke sued the following entities under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act: (1) Lee County, which operated the jail and court; (2) the Community Supervision and Corrections Departments of both Lee County and San Jacinto County (the “Supervision Departments”), the Texas state agencies that oversaw his probation; and (3) the State of Texas. Luke sought injunctive relief against the Supervision Departments and the State of Texas and compensatory and nominal damages from all defendants.

 

The District Court wound up concluding that the supervision department enjoyed sovereign immunity. It also granted Lee County’s motion for judgment on the pleadings for the same reason. It granted the state of Texas motion to dismiss for improper service of process because Luke serve the wrong Texas official. Luke appealed.

 

II

 

Court’s Reasoning on Sovereign Immunity and That Luke Did Adequately State a Claim for Violating Title II of the ADA

 

 

  1. Lee County is a political subdivision of Texas and not an arm of the State. Therefore, it does not enjoy state sovereign immunity.
  2. To make out a claim under title II of the ADA, Luke had to show: 1) that he is a qualified individual with a disability; 2) that he was excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, services, program, or activities for which the public entity is responsible, or was otherwise being discriminated against; and 3) that such discrimination is because of his disability.
  3. Luke’s deafness makes him a qualified individual with a disability.
  4. Luke can show that he was discriminated against because of his disability as both Lee County and the Supervision Departments knew he was Deaf yet failed to provide an accommodation despite multiple requests for an interpreter.
  5. Title II regulations, 28 C.F.R. §35.160(b)(1), lists auxiliary aids, which include qualified interpreters, as reasonable accommodations that public entities have to provide when necessary.
  6. Luke also alleged that he was denied the benefit of meaningful access to public services. In particular he alleged that he was not able to understand his legal rights or effectively communicate throughout his proceedings. Not being able to understand a court hearing or a meeting with the probation officer is by definition a lack of meaningful access to those public services.
  7. Citing to Tennessee v. Lane, the court said that a core purpose of title II is for public entities to accommodate persons with disabilities in the administration of justice.
  8. A theory that Luke was not denied a public service because he successfully completed his probation anyway is entirely inconsistent with the ADA. Nothing in the ADA’s text or the case law applying it requires Luke to have alleged a bad outcome. There is a good reason for that because lack of meaningful access itself is the harm under title II regardless of whether any additional injury follows. Luke’s title II injury is not being able to understand the judges and probation officers as a defendant who is not Deaf would.
  9. Under the District Court’s reasoning, the state could refuse to provide an ASL interpreter for a culturally deaf individual’s trial and then avoid title II liability if the defendant is acquitted. It simply doesn’t work that way and courts have rightly rejected that position.
  10. While it is true that the positive outcome of Luke’s criminal case may affect his damages, that does not allow courts to escape their ADA obligations.
  11. The argument that Luke’s mother served as an interpreter means there was no ADA violation doesn’t wash either for several reasons: 1) his mother knows only basic sign language. So, his mother’s involvement would not have fully informed him of the proceedings or otherwise provide the meaningful access the ADA requires; and 2) if one considers 28 C.F.R. §35.160(c)(2) public entities cannot force a person with a disability’s family member to provide the interpretation services for which the entity is responsible.
  12. Since Luke sufficiently stated a title II claim, his claim against Lee County gets past the pleading stage.
  13. With respect to the Supervision Departments, Luke clearly satisfied the first step of the sovereign immunity abrogation elements in that he clearly stated violations of title II. However, it remains for the District Court on remand after full briefing and consideration to determine whether the misconduct also violated the 14th amendment and if not, whether Congress’s abrogation of sovereign immunity to that particular conduct was nevertheless valid.
  14. With respect to the State of Texas, Luke did indeed serve the wrong officer. Therefore, Texas is dismissed from the case.
  15. The District Court erred when it said that Luke failed to specifically allege facts supporting compensatory damages. Luke alleged that not being able to understand the proceedings against him caused him fear, anxiety, indignity, and humiliation.
  16. In a footnote, the court noted that it is a separate issue whether compensatory damages are available to title II plaintiffs at all because of Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, which we discussed here. It is up to the District Court on remand to decide what effect if any Cummings has on Luke’s ability to recover emotional distress damages under title II. Regardless, Luke also seeks nominal damages.
  17. In another footnote, the court noted that meaningful access is a standard that comes from the Supreme Court in a Rehabilitation Act case. However, the ADA and Rehabilitation Act are interpreted the same way. So, that standard applies equally to the ADA.

 

III

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. For sovereign immunity to apply, an entity must be an arm of the State. Political subdivisions do not get the benefit of sovereign immunity.
  2. Communication with a culturally deaf individual must be effective communication as we discussed in this blog entry.
  3. Tennessee v. Lane did hold that when it comes to accessing the courts people with disabilities are at least in the intermediate scrutiny category if not higher with respect to equal protection jurisprudence.
  4. The lack of meaningful access itself is the harm under title II and an injury is not required. So, by way of analogy you might also be able to argue that a failure to accommodate in a title I case does not require an adverse action.
  5. Escaping damages under the ADA is not the same as escaping liability.
  6. When we discussed Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, a question I raised was whether damages under title II are ever in play because title II’s remedies are hooked into the Rehabilitation Act remedies. This case specifically mentions that Cummings may preclude damages for violations of title II of the ADA. The court did note that nominal damages would still be in play even so. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
  7. Both title II and title III of the ADA work off a meaningful access standard.
  8. Remember, as we discussed here, that ADA causation is undoubtedly not sole cause.
  9. As we discussed here, the ADA is a nondelegable duty.

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