Judge: Court discriminated against deaf man by denying mediation interpreter

A deaf Indianapolis man was discriminated against when a court denied providing him an interpreter during a mediation session ordered in his child custody case. A federal judge ruled Friday that Marion Superior Court’s decision to deny the interpreter in a court-funded mediation program violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Dustin King sued the courts in 2014, claiming that he was entitled to an American Sign Language interpreter when he participated in Marion County’s modest means assistance program in which litigants seek to mediate their family law disputes. King argued he was treated differently because of his disability, and Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana agreed Friday, entering partial summary judgment in favor of King.

“Marion Circuit Court does not dispute that it did not provide Mr. King with an ASL interpreter, but rather that it offered him a reasonable accommodation by waiving the mediation requirement,” Magnus-Stinson wrote in her 30-page order in Dustin King v. Marion Circuit Court, 1:14-cv-1092.

King sued Marion Circuit Court because it is the policymaker for the county’s courts.

“(H)owever, this is not an accommodation because it would exclude Mr. King from participating in the Modest Means Program, which he wanted to do. Other than excluding him from participation, Marion Circuit Court has designated no other evidence to demonstrate that it gave primary — or any — consideration to Mr. King’s need for an ASL interpreter or that it considered other reasonable accommodations to allow him to participate in mediation. Thus, Marion Circuit Court’s failure to seek any reasonable accommodation that would allow Mr. King to participate in the program is sufficient to establish that it acted with deliberate indifference and therefore intentionally.”

This is a violation of Title II of the ADA, Magnus-Stinson wrote. “Therefore, because Marion Circuit Court knew that Mr. King was deaf and required an ASL interpreter for mediation, was advised that he considered the ADA to apply, and it nevertheless denied him an interpreter or a reasonable accommodation, the Court finds that Marion Circuit Court intentionally discriminated against Mr. King.”

The order also denied the state’s motion for summary judgment in the 3-year-old litigation. Magnus-Stinson rejected the state’s arguments of sovereign and judicial immunity.

“In conclusion, the Court finds that Mr. King is a qualified individual, Marion Circuit Court is a public entity, and the Modest Means Mediation Program is a service, program, or activity all within the meaning of Title II of the ADA. Moreover, Marion Circuit Court violated Title II when it denied Mr. King’s request for an ASL interpreter for the Modest Means Mediation Program, failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation, and intentionally discriminated against him on the basis of his disability.”

Andrea Ciobanu, who represents King, declined to comment on the order Monday.

“By statute the Attorney General's Office represents state courts and judges when they are sued in their official capacities.  We will review the U.S. District Court's ruling, confer with our Marion County Circuit Court client and decide on next steps by the appropriate deadlines,” said Indiana attorney general spokesman Bryan Corbin.

Despite being denied an interpreter, King continued with the mediation and asked his stepfather to be his interpreter. But Magnus-Stinson noted, “He has never interpreted in the courtroom and has never completed a program or obtained any certificates for interpreting in the courtroom. … Mr. King suffered emotional distress as a result of Marion Circuit Court’s refusal to provide an interpreter for mediation.” The mediation was successful, but King also incurred attorney fees in requesting the court to provide an interpreter.

Magnus-Stinson cautioned that courts must provide services equally, and cost cannot be a consideration in denial of services. The order explains the Marion County modest means mediation program is funded with a $20 court-filing fee assessed on divorce cases, and participants who qualify pay a $5 co-pay to use the service. The courts had a contract for sign language interpreters who billed $60 an hour for on-site interpretation, and the county had budgeted $25,000 for interpreter services in 2013.

The state argued unsuccessfully that its line-item budget for interpreters was inadmissible because there was no evidence that money could be used for interpreter services in mediation.

“The Court is mindful of the budget constraints all units of government face, but simple citation to lack of funding is not a sufficient response to a person with a disability seeking to avail himself of a governmental service,” Magnus-Stinson concluded. She ordered a conference scheduled for parties to discuss resolution of the remaining issues, perhaps through mediation.

Another recent case in the Southern District involved a deaf courtroom spectator who was denied an ASL interpreter during his mother’s criminal trial in Dearborn County. The state settled that case brought by Steven “Matt” Prakel and his mother, Carolyn Prakel, awarding $10,000 in compensatory damages to each of them and legal fees of $104,500.

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