7th Circuit reverses judgment for deaf litigant, tosses suit

A federal court ruling in favor of a deaf litigant who was denied a court-provided sign language interpreter for mediation in his child custody case was reversed on appeal Friday.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and award of $10,380 in damages in favor of Dustin King. The panel remanded his federal civil rights case brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act with instructions to dismiss the suit, though King may file an action in state court.

“The district court held that Indiana does not enjoy sovereign immunity because this case falls within the abrogation of (state sovereign) immunity sustained in Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509 (2004). We disagree with that conclusion,” Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the panel in Dustin King v. Marion Circuit Court, 16-3726. In Lane, a litigant who used a wheelchair couldn’t reach a second-floor courtroom, which the court held violated his right to fundamental access to the court.

Easterbrook wrote that no such violation occurred in King’s case, when he requested and was denied a court-appointed American Sign Language interpreter in Marion County’s Modest Means Mediation Program. King ultimately participated in mediation with the interpretative assistance of a relative and received a satisfactory outcome. Further, Easterbrook wrote, local court rules provide Marion Superior judges the discretion to determine when mediation is appropriate.

“King does not contend that the Marion Circuit Court treats deaf litigants unfairly or that deaf litigants encounter any barrier to litigation on a par with litigants who can hear. The Circuit Court’s invitation to litigate therefore afforded King full access to court,” Easterbrook wrote.

District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled in King’s favor in May 2016, holding that the denial of a court-appointed interpreter for King was discrimination under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. King’s suit was joined by the U.S. Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. The federal government argued in a brief that the Marion Superior Courts were deliberately indifferent to King’s disability.

The 7th Circuit saw otherwise.

“The United States has not explained how awarding damages to King could ward off future unconstitutional conduct. As far as we know (and as far as King contends), the Circuit Court does not wield its power to order mediation as part of a scheme to bar the disabled from obtaining legal redress. It does not routinely demand mediation as a prerequisite to adjudication, knowing that the parties’ disabilities will block mediation and so block litigation too,” Easterbrook wrote.

“Nor does King contend that the Circuit Court plans to implement such a strategy in the future. What happened to him points to just the opposite conclusion. Our sample of one indicates that, when a disabled person might have trouble mediating, the Marion Circuit Court immediately offers full adjudication. We do not have any reason to believe that a single disabled person in Marion County will ever be denied access to court because of the limits on the subsidies provided by the (Modest Means Mediation) Plan, or because of the mediation process as a whole. And in the absence of any other evidence, we cannot say that allowing King’s damages action would plausibly function as a prophylactic against future constitutional violations.”

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