ADA claims against St. Joseph County courts fail in 7th Circuit

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment for the St. Joseph County court system in a case involving accessibility of the St. Joseph County Courthouse and the Mishawaka County Services Building. The court said many of the plaintiffs’ claims lack standing, while others failed to raise genuine disputes of material fact.

However, the lawsuit hasn’t been a total loss for the plaintiffs. It’s already brought several changes to the St. Joseph County Courthouse, including remodeling the restrooms to make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and several changes to state court policies.

“We do not hold that the St. Joseph County courts are fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Rather, we hold only that these plaintiffs have failed to present evidence sufficient to survive defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the specific claims before the district court,” Judge David Hamilton wrote. “We express no opinion regarding any possible future claims involving courthouse accessibility. If, in the future, individuals with disabilities experience problems with access to the St. Joseph County courts, their claims will need to be decided on a fresh record.”

Four plaintiffs sued the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners and the City of South Bend in 2010. They all had disabilities and two of them used wheelchairs. They sought injunctive relief and damages, saying the courthouse and services building did not comply with the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.

The District Court first denied their motion for injunction because they did not have cases pending in state courts, and then when they added plaintiffs who did, denied it again. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the remaining claims, and it was granted. The plaintiffs appealed both their standing and the merits of their claims.

The court ruled the plaintiffs lack standing in the case against the Mishawaka building because only one plaintiff litigated a case there and it was dismissed. Also, plaintiffs did not explain how they were denied court services because of the inaccessibility.

The court ruled plaintiffs lacked standing when sharing concerns about parking around the St. Joseph County Courthouse as well. The evidence didn’t support any damages regarding snow removal problems, and although their lawyer expressed some problems, he was not a plaintiff. The court said the lawyer, who uses a wheelchair, may have a case of his own.

The 7th Circuit also agreed with the District Court on St. Joseph accessibility issues.

“We agree with the district court that no plaintiff has offered sufficient evidence to maintain a claim for damages against the county. Three remaining plaintiffs … have had some experience litigating in the St. Joseph County Courthouse. They have failed to offer evidence that they encountered accessibility problems in the courthouse, that those problems led to their inability to access court services, or that they were discriminated against on the basis of their disabilities,” Hamilton wrote.

The case is Stephen Hummel, et al. v. St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners, et al., 14-3284.

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