ADA Round-Up: Illinois Prison Sanctions, Senior Living Communities Sued

by: David Titmus

Welcome to the latest edition of “ADA in the News,” featuring recent news, updates, events, and rulings regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Court Sanctions Illinois Prisons for Failing Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Prisoners

View of a prison corridor similar to the one hit with an ADA suitA federal judge has ruled that the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) violated the settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit that required effective communication for prisoners who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Earlier this month, Judge Young B. Kim granted a motion to enforce the settlement after efforts to get IDOC to comply with the settlement’s requirements were unsuccessful.

The class action was filed in 2011 and alleged, among other things, that IDOC failed to provide American Sign Language interpreters and other alternate forms of communication. Without these accommodations, deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners largely were left without access to healthcare, religious services, educational and vocational programs, telephones, televisions, library services, disciplinary proceedings, grievances, and early release programs. A settlement agreement requiring enhanced hearing screenings, evaluations, and assessments for deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners was approved in 2018.

However, the court found that instead of using audiologists to conduct the mandated evaluations, prison officials used licensed hearing instrument dispensers, who the suit claims lacked the necessary training to conduct the evaluations.

The judge also found that the wait-times deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners were experiencing before receiving the evaluations (in some cases, up to 8 months) were excessive, and ordered IDOC to provide the evaluations within 90 days going forward.

As a result of IDOC’s failure to comply with the settlement agreement, the judge awarded sanctions against the department, requiring it to pay plaintiffs’ reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs relating to investigating and litigating the violation.

“The IDOC has long neglected the communication needs and rights of deaf and hard-of-hearing people in their prisons, and continues to do so long even after the filing of this case in 2011 and settlement in 2018,” said Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. “The latest court order found that the IDOC is continuing violations, and compels immediate change. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have communication rights that do not stop at the prison door and must be respected.”

Maintenance Company Settles Disability Suit

A Michigan-based management and maintenance services company will pay $25,000 to settle a federal disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

According to the suit, Powerlink Facilities Management Services violated federal law by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who is deaf. In this instance, the company’s training videos shown during employee orientation lacked captions. Instead of providing the employee with an accommodation to take part in the orientation, the suit claims that Powerlink told the employee that she could not complete the process and delayed her start date for about two months.

In addition to the $25,000, the settlement requires the company to participate in ADA training and report to the EEOC.

Assisted Living Facilities Sued

National Fair Housing Alliance logoMore than a dozen senior living communities are facing lawsuits from a consortium of nonprofit fair housing organizations for allegedly not providing interpreters or other aids when testers posing as deaf prospective residents or family members called or visited.

The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) said that, over the past 18 months, when testers called or made on-site visits to the senior living communities on behalf of the organization, pretending to be interested in learning more about the communities, staff members responded by:

  • Refusing to provide qualified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or other reasonable accommodations to ensure that residents or family members would be able to communicate.
  • Saying that interpretation services would be charged to residents or their families.
  • Recommending that testers use a senior living placement service to find a senior living community better fitting the needs of the potential residents.
  • Stating that the community would not be a good fit for the prospective deaf residents.
  • Indicating that although the community had access to ASL resources, it could not guarantee that the service would be available on a continual basis and that, if there were costs associated with the ASL service, residents might have to pay half of the charges.

The NFHA alleges that these acts violate the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing providers from discriminating against people with disabilities.

Reasonable Accommodations Appeal

A former wholesale warehouse store employee is appealing a court decision to dismiss a jury verdict that awarded her $775,000 in a disability discrimination suit.

The woman, who is deaf, sued Costco, claiming that the company did not provide reasonable accommodations. The woman claimed that she repeatedly had brought concerns that management ignored her and refused to communicate with her in writing, her preferred method of interacting. She was fired in 2013 after an argument with her boss.

​Costco argued that it provided ADA training to employees and took steps to accommodate the plaintiff’s needs, including implementing video remote interpretation devices to assist the employee.

In 2018, a jury found in favor of the employee and awarded her $750,000 for mental anguish, along with $25,000 in punitive damages. Less than a year later, a U.S. district judge reversed the verdict, and determined that the employee failed to make use of the video interpretation devices that Costco had provided for her and her managers.

The woman is appealing the ruling, arguing that the online interpretation services were not sufficient to resolve the communication breakdown that was occurring in the workplace in the year leading up to her firing.​ She’s asking the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate the jury award and void a district court order that allowed for a new trial in the event that the judge’s decision is reversed.

How VITAC Can Help

VITAC company logoAs the largest captioning company in the country, VITAC works closely with caption clients, viewers, and advocates. Though not all video must be captioned by law, we strongly believe that everything should be as captions provide myriad benefits for all.

Providing accessible solutions – whether it be via captioned content, sign language interpreters, or other reasonable accommodations – not only satisfies ADA requirements but also is the right thing to do.