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Indiana fights discrimination ruling against trial court

June 15, 2016
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A federal court ruling that a Marion County court discriminated against a deaf man who was denied an interpreter for his court-ordered mediation is being appealed by the state, which argues he lacked standing to bring the suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act and state courts should be immune from such judgments.

Dustin King won partial summary judgment May 27 in his ADA complaint after he requested an American Sign Language interpreter for a mediation session in his child custody case and was denied in Marion Superior Court. Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled the denial of an interpreter was intentional discrimination and deliberately indifferent.

Citing ongoing litigation, Marion Superior Courts administrator Emily VanOsdol said she could not comment on whether the courts have revised policies on providing interpreters for programs in light of the ruling in King’s case.

The state, however, continues to fight the ruling that a leading national legal advocate for the deaf called a matter of settled law under the ADA.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s office on June 6 appealed Magnus-Stinson’s ruling. The state moved to stay her order and asked for certification of an interlocutory appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The state also moved to vacate the order, which the federal court denied. At IL deadline, a settlement conference before Magnus-Stinson remained scheduled for June 20.

The state contends on appeal there are pure questions of law regarding King’s standing, state court sovereignty, and whether the court-operated mediation program qualifies as a program for ADA purposes.

“From a litigation standpoint moving forward, Marion Circuit Court is unable to take a settlement position based on the threshold legal issues needing to be addressed,” the state argues in support of its motion to appeal. “Marion Circuit Court contends that its designated evidence and testimony in the record demonstrates that (King) has no damages, and therefore no injury in fact, which goes directly to standing. ... If the issue of damages needs to be decided following ruling from the Seventh Circuit it will proceed as a one day bench trial.”

King’s attorney, Andrea Ciobanu, declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation but said King would file a response to the state’s motion to appeal.

After King requested and was denied an interpreter, he ultimately participated in the mediation program with his stepfather interpreting for him. Magnus-Stinson noted, though, that King’s relative “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.”

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

But the state argues in its appeal brief that evidence of King’s emotional distress is lacking in the record. The state “continues to contend for purposes of the legal issue of standing that it designated sufficient evidence from (King’s) deposition showing he has no damages, no injury in fact, and any emotional distress he has experienced is a result of the litigation of this lawsuit, not the underlying claims,” according to its memorandum.

Magnus-Stinson ruled King has standing to bring the suit under Title II of the ADA. She held that Marion County’s Modest Means Mediation Program, in which he was denied an interpreter after a request, is a program covered under Title II. As a result, the court discriminated against King.

The federal court also ruled against Marion Circuit Court on its sovereign and judicial immunity arguments. Magnus-Stinson wrote, “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.”

Waiving the mediation requirement for King as the court offered instead of providing an interpreter was not a reasonable accommodation “because it would exclude Mr. King from participating in the Modest Means Program, which he wanted to do,” Magnus-Stinson wrote. “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.”

In appealing the ruling, the state contends, “There is a split among the federal circuits as to the appropriate standard for showing intentional discrimination, which is prerequisite to recovering compensatory damages under the ADA. ... The Seventh Circuit has not decided on what the appropriate standard for damages is in this circuit.”

The appeal memorandum also argues, “Indiana law supports the fact that privatemediation is not a judicial service or a judicial proceeding. The undisputed facts show that private mediation granted through the Marion Circuit Court Modest Means Program is not a state program, service, or activity as defined by Title II. Whether the Court’s Modest Means Mediation Program implicates a fundamental right of access to judicial services … is another contested question of law that will ultimately assist in speeding this litigation toward a conclusion.”

While the state appeals the decision, Howard Rosenblum, director of legal services for the National Association for the Deaf, said in an email that the King ruling was hardly precedent-setting. “It’s been long established that state courts (like all public entities under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 as well as any entity receiving federal funds pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) must make their programs and services accessible.”

“Court mediations are clearly a program or service of the court,” Rosenblum said. “Unfortunately, state courts are still unaware of their legal obligations to make their courts as well as related programs and services accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people as well as all people with disabilities,” he said. The NAD is not involved in this litigation.

The case is Dustin King v. Marion Circuit Court, 1:14-cv-1092.•

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