Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Second Circuit revives disability discrimination case

The Court of Appeals has been broadly interpreting the federal disability discrimination laws lately. A few months ago, it ruled that the children of hearing-impaired parents could sue a hospital under the Rehabilitation Act because they were required to interpret for their parents after their father underwent an emotional procedure. This time around, the Second Circuit rules in favor of a disabled woman who was denied a reasonable accommodation in order to visit with her incarcerated husband.

The case is Fulton v. Goord, decided on December 22. As Fulton has Multiple Sclerosis, it is difficult for her to travel long distances. When her husband was incarcerated 300 miles from home, she wanted him transferred to a prison closer to New York City. The state rejected that request. The trial court said that Fulton does not have standing to bring the claim because she has "no legally cognizable interest" in having her spouse transferred to a nearby prison. This analysis misunderstands the case, the Second Circuit (Walker, Jacobs and Leval) says. Rather, "the essence of Fulton's challenge is the defendants' refusal, in light of her disability, to provide her with, or even to consider, 'a reasonable accommodation to participate in the visiting program.'" As Fulton's claim alleges that she suffered harm as a result of the state's refusal to accommodate her disability under the visitation program, she has standing to sue. Citing Innovative Health Systems v. City of White Plains, 117 F.3d 37 (2d Cir. 1997), the Court of Appeals notes that the standing rules are relaxed under the federal disability discrimination laws.

The next question is whether Fulton states a claim for relief under federal law. The Second Circuit says that ... she might have a claim. The Court of Appeals does not definitively say that Fulton can sue. It says that the district court should give her case another look under Rule 12 to see if she states a claim upon which relief can be granted. But let's read between the lines. The Court of Appeals says that, in all likelihood, Fulton has a case, at least on paper. Fulton is an eligible participant in the visitation program, and she says that the state denied her a reasonable accommodation in the form of relocating her husband so that she can more easily visit him. Of course, this does not mean that all of her husband's relatives or acquaintances can bring a claim like this. "Reasonable accommodations" under federal law is a "relational term" that depends on the circumstances. In this context-specific inquiry, the wife probably has more rights than anyone else. As the district court also improperly interpreted her claim to mean that the transfer policy "is discriminatorily based on [Fulton's] disability," the case is sent back for the trial court to reconsider its opinion.

A footnote to this blog post is a footnote the opinion. The Second Circuit suggests ways that plaintiff could be accommodated short of moving her husband to a closer prison. This may be the first case in our Circuit which makes reference to Skype computer software:

For example, it is not unusual for prisoners to be shuttled to urban
centers for court appearances and prosecutorial interviews, and such a visit could also serve to accommodate a disabled spouse. Fulton herself posits that her husband could perhaps have been temporarily transferred “back and forth to a downstate facility accessible” to her for occasional visits. Other prisons have made similar short-term arrangements for disabled inmates. ... Absent transporting the prisoner or the visitor, there are also now electronic means for visits, such as via a “Skype”-style program over the internet. See generally Skype, (offering software that enables internet video and voice conferencing). In noting that the possibility of a reasonable accommodation is not unrealistic, we express no view on the reasonableness of any potential accommodation in the instant case. The DOCS likely has other commonplace practices that Fulton might benefit from, and it is for the DOCS, in the first instance, to determine whether any of them would be a reasonable accommodation in this case.

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