Deaf courtroom spectator ends fight with settlement

A deaf Indiana man who was denied a sign-language interpreter in court has reached a $124,500 settlement with the state of Indiana.

The settlement comes more than three years after Steven “Matt” Prakel, who is deaf, and his mother, Carolyn Prakel, filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Indiana and the judiciary for violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

judges-plaintiffs-1col.jpg Steven “Matt” Prakel and his mother, Carolyn, had to pay for a sign-language interpreter so he could follow the court proceedings. (IL File Photo)

Under the terms of the settlement, reached July 17, the plaintiffs are dismissing their claims against two judges and one magistrate judge in Dearborn County in exchange for monetary restitution, according to Prakel’s attorneys. The state of Indiana will pay Prakel and his mother $10,000 each in compensatory damages along with $104,500 to their counsel, Stein & Vargas LLP.

In addition, the settlement notes the defendants deny all the claims alleged by the plaintiffs and do not admit any violation of any state or federal law or of any liability.

“Courts throughout the United States must provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication with deaf and hard of hearing individuals, whether they are parties, witnesses, jurors, judges or spectators,” Howard A. Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf, stated in a press release. “This case affirms this basic legal right.”

The Indiana attorney general’s office, which represented the members of the Dearborn County judiciary in this complaint, emphasized the federal court made no judgment on whether the judges discriminated against Prakel.

“It should be noted the U.S. District Court previously dismissed claims against the State of Indiana and others and denied the plaintiffs’ attempt to expand the litigation as to declaratory judgment and injunctive relief throughout all courts in the State of Indiana,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement. “The Dearborn Circuit Court had previously provided Mr. Prakel an American Sign Language interpreter at taxpayer expense when he was a witness in a criminal case; the issue here was whether he was entitled to an interpreter at taxpayer expense when he was a criminal courtroom spectator, not a litigant or witness.”

Prakel filed the lawsuit April 2012 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana after the Dearborn Superior Court No. 1 and Dearborn Circuit Court would not pay for an interpreter so he could understand his mother’s criminal proceedings. The courts contended they did not have to provide Prakel an interpreter because he was a spectator, not a participant, in the proceedings.

Among the parties named as defendants were Dearborn Judges James Humphrey and Jonathan Cleary along with Magistrate Judge Kimberly Schmaltz, the chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court and the Indiana Division of State Court Administration.

The District Court subsequently dismissed the case against the state, the chief justice and the state agency, but allowed the suit to proceed against the Dearborn judges and magistrate judge.

In March, the District Court rejected the Dearborn judiciary’s claim of immunity and the case was headed to trial. The District Court entered an order on June 22 that the parties had entered settlement negotiations.

“All I wanted to do was to understand what was being said in court,” Prakel said after the settlement was reached. “Courts need to be accessible when a deaf person attends a court hearing.”

Prakel and his mother were represented by the National Association of the Deaf, Stein & Vargas LLP and the Lorch Law Office, LLC.•

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