This posting is later than my usual Monday. However, Monday was Memorial Day and then I had family in.

In a previous blog entry of mine, I discussed how suing a state court system can be done but that it is very complicated. This case discusses the myriad of defenses that arise in such a situation. The case is King v. Indiana Supreme Court, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58388 (S.D. Ind. May 5, 2015). As is typical for my blog entries, I have divided the blog entry into categories: facts; defenses; resolution of the issues; the merits of the ADA claims; Rehabilitation Act claims; and takeaways. The reader is free to concentrate on any or all of the sections.

I
Facts

The facts are really straightforward. The plaintiff is deaf and communicates primarily in ASL. He is only able to follow, understand, and participate in court proceedings with an ASL interpreter. He had a domestic relations case and as part of that case, he paid a filing fee, for which portions of funds derived from were utilized to support the Marion County Modest Means Mediation Program. Since the case required two or more hours of the trial court’s time, he was initially required to participate in mediation pursuant to a local Marion County Indiana rule. He applied for and qualified through the court process to participate in the Marion County Modest Means Mediation Program, and the trial court appointed the mediator with the mediation being initially scheduled for July 12, 2013. About three weeks before then, he moved for an ASL interpreter to be appointed by the state court at its expense for his mediation. The trial court denied the motion saying that it did not supply interpreters for mediation hearings. He then filed a motion to reconsider, which the trial court also denied saying that no funding had been budgeted for providing interpreters during mediation proceedings and that funding was only budgeted for interpreters during court proceedings. In order to alleviate the need for an interpreter, the trial court waived the party’s obligation to participate in the mediation under the applicable local rule. The plaintiff then moved the trial court to certify the issue for an interlocutory appeal, but the trial court denied that. Since he wanted to participate in the Modest Means Mediation Program, he proceeded without the provision of a trial court appointed or supplied ASL interpreter instead relying on a family member that he found to interpret during the mediation. It cost him some money to find that family member as well as to obtain that family member to interpret for him during the mediation. He then filed suit against the Indiana Supreme Court, Marion County Circuit Court, the Indiana Supreme Court Division of State Court Administration, Marion County office of the court administrator, and the Marion County Council alleging violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

II
Defenses

1. Standing

2. Rooker-Feldman doctrine

3. Collateral estoppel

4. Domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction

5. Sovereign immunity

6. Judicial immunity

7. Judicial estoppel

8. Waiver

III
Resolution of the Issues

1. With respect to the plaintiff’s claims against the Indiana Supreme Court and the Division of State Court Administration, the plaintiff made various allegations in his pleading regarding the relationship between the Modest Means Mediation Program and the Indiana Supreme Court and the Division of State Court Administration, that were sufficient to show standing including:

A. The executive director of the Indiana Supreme Court, Division of State Court Administration has to approve any ADR plan formulated by the counties wishing to participate in the ADR program;

B. Standards and guidelines for each ADR plan are provided by the Indiana Supreme Court and the Division of State Court Administration;

C. The modest means mediation program derives its funding through the ADR fund, which is administered and/or approved by the Indiana Supreme Court and the Indiana State Court Administration;

D. The Marion County Court and the Marion County Circuit Court directly decide how to allocate such funding and they have to report its funding to the Indiana State Supreme Court and the Indiana State Court Administration;

E. To some degree, the Indiana Supreme Court and the Division of State Court Administration control the Marion County Court Modest Means Mediation Program and its funding.

2. With respect to the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction (federal courts do not have jurisdiction over domestic relations matters), the plaintiff was not seeking to attack the determination involving an issue of divorce, custody, paternity, or any other domestic relations matter. Rather, he was only challenging the trial court’s denial of an ASL interpreter for his mediation; a challenge entirely unrelated to the merits or facts of the underlying domestic relations case.

3. With respect to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which prohibits federal courts from conducting direct review of the decision of state courts, the court said that the key was that the state court’s judgment and the paternity case was not the source of the injury complained of by the plaintiff. That is, he was not asking the federal court to order the state court to do anything nor was he asking the federal court for relief from the state court’s judgment. What he was after was the pursuit of an independent claim that the state court violated the ADA. Therefore, the doctrine didn’t apply.

4. With respect to collateral estoppel, the plaintiff accurately pointed out that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims were not actually litigated in that state court. His accommodation was denied based on funding and did not address the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act. The plaintiff did not make ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims in the state court paternity suit. Finally, the decision regarding whether to appoint an interpreter for mediation in the paternity action was not essential to the final judgment entered on the merits of that action.

5. With respect to sovereign immunity, Congress properly forced Indiana to waive sovereign immunity in this case because:

A. The holding of Tennessee v. Lane is not limited to actual in court proceedings. In fact, Lane noted that the right of access to the courts implicates the accessibility of judicial services and specifically in that opinion referenced the failure of state and local government to provide interpreter services for the hearing impaired.

B. The Modest Means Mediation Program is a public program created by Indiana statute, approved by the state defendants, and maintained by the county defendants.

5. With respect to judicial immunity, the court wasn’t buying it because:

A. Official immunities are personal defenses designed to protect the finances of public officials whose salaries do not compensate them for the risks of liability under what are hard to foresee constitutional doctrines. However, that justification does not apply to suits against units of state or local government, which have the ability to tap the public treasury.

6. With respect to judicial estoppel, that defense doesn’t work because the plaintiff was pursuing a separate federal action stemming from independent federal claims not pled in the state court paternity action.

7. With respect to the waiver argument, payment of fees and costs in a state court action is not the same thing as knowingly relinquishing a claim for damages for an independent federal claim.

IV
The Merits of the ADA Claims

1. Title II of the ADA mandates that public entities make their programs, services, and activities accessible unless to do so results in a fundamental alteration of the services or imposes an undue burden.

2. The providing of interpreters is specifically listed as a reasonable accommodation in the ADA.

3. A title II claim can be established by a showing that: the defendant intentionally acted on the basis of the disability; and either the defendant refused to provide a reasonable modification or the defendant’s rule disproportionately impacts disabled people.

Interesting use of the term “on the basis of,” here because the title II term is actually “by reason of.” Whether any of that makes a difference was mentioned here.

4. IV3 means that the plaintiff has to show that the intentional actions were connected to the denial of his request to be provided an ASL interpreter. Since his complaint contains no allegations that anyone other than the judge or the Marion Circuit Court took any action or made any decision with regards to his request for an ASL interpreter for the Modest Means Mediation Program and his paternity case, causation against the Indiana Supreme Court and the Division of State Court Administration was not there, and therefore, claims against those defendants failed as a result.

V
Rehabilitation Act Claim

1. Rehabilitation Act is program specific in that it proscribes discrimination only with respect to programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.

2. Since the complaint says that the Modest Means Mediation Program is privately funded, the program could not be subject to the Rehabilitation Act.

VI
Takeaways

1. This case offers a good roadmap for defeating many of the defenses that will arise whenever you sue a state court system for disability discrimination. Perhaps, the best thing a person can do is to not go after the actors in their individual capacity as that activates all the immunity defenses. It is possible that you might be able to show that the denial of an accommodation was an administrative act and not a judicial act but that is going to be difficult because it is not unusual for judges to be the ones deciding whether the accommodation is appropriate either directly as part of the case or being given that authority by the ADA coordinator. Also, not suing the actors individually may minimize any chance of retaliation against the litigants or the litigants attorneys by the actors.

2. This particular court seems to believe that “by reason of,” and “on the basis of,” are the same. That may or may not be the case as we have discussed here.

3. Interesting about the Rehabilitation Act being restricted to the program or activity because the language of the Rehabilitation Act seems to suggest that with respect to state or local governmental entities, no such restriction is in place. See here.
.

That is, 29 U.S.C. § 794 states:

For the purposes of this section, the term “program or activity” means all of the operations [emphasis mine] of—

(1)
(A) a department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a State or of a local government; or

(B) the entity of such State or local government that distributes such assistance and each such department or agency (and each other State or local government entity) to which the assistance is extended, in the case of assistance to a State or local government;

Neither section seems to suggest that Rehabilitation Act applicability in a case such as this depends upon a particular program receiving the federal funds. One also wonders in light of these provisions if there is an grounds for appeal with respect to the applicability of the Rehabilitation Act against all of the defendants since §(B) above makes the state or local governmental entity distributing such assistance subject to the Rehabilitation Act.

4. Interesting that a § 1983 cause of action for injunctive relief against the judicial officers was not pursued. § 1983 allows for injunctive relief against a judicial officer where declaratory relief was violated or where declaratory relief was not available. Considering the motions for accommodations and the refusal of the court to certify it for interlocutory appeal, an argument can be made that declaratory relief was not available. So, you might ask where is the equal protection violation? The argument would go like this: with respect to accessing judicial services, persons with disabilities are looking at a fundamental right, or at the very least something higher than rational basis. Therefore, there simply cannot be a compelling reason or even a good reason to deny a person with a disability trying to access judicial services the accommodations/modifications he or she is entitled to under the ADA. Accordingly, such a denial is a violation of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I could also see an argument that being unable to access the courts as a result of failure to accommodate a person with a disability through reasonable modifications could violate the due process clause as well.

5 Responses to Suing a state court system: Shooting down the Defenses

I’m surprised that the privately funded Modest Means Program was the only source of funds for accommodations in this case. Usually, there are County or State subdivisions that will arrange for ADA/Sect 504 accommodations in most cases–although it is best to apply for them 30 days in advance. Another possibility is the translation services provided by the County/State for parties. (These are usually free if the party qualifies for a fee waiver in CA.) People who are culturally deaf often have the same problems understanding straight written translations as people who are, say, culturally Japanese: There’s a whole conceptual link missing because of the way they learn the ASL language that is similar to languages that are quite different from those with European roots. Arguably, if a government subdivision makes translators available for people who speak Spanish, why not ASL?

The US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Justice have issued a document called, “Protecting the Rights of Parents and Prospective Parents with Disabilities: Technical Assistance for State and Local Child Welfare Agencies and Courts under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.” It can be found here at: http://www.ada.gov/doj_hhs_ta/child_welfare_ta.html

A read of this document is nothing new for anyone knowledgeable about title II of the ADA. What I found significant is that both HHS and DOJ are receiving many complaints about discrimination against individuals with disabilities involved with the child welfare system and the courts and the frequency of the complaints are rising. I myself have received several calls regarding alleged cases of discrimination in courts hearing family law matters. What this guidance does do is put on notice that discrimination against persons with disabilities in the child welfare system and in the family courts is being watched and therefore, complaints against them are likely to be favorably reviewed. It does lead one to wonder about the level of knowledge of title II of the ADA in the child welfare system and in the family courts. Hopefully, this document will encourage the title two entities affected by this technical guidance to become more knowledgeable.

Updating on this case. On September 13, 2016, the District Court concluded that the plaintiff should receive $10,380 in damages. Congratulation to Alex Beeman of Beeman Law. As we have discussed previously, not easy to successfully sue a court system let alone get damages.

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