Thursday, August 4, 2016

Court of Appeals lays out the rules for ADA access claims in State prisons

This case is a thorough discussion of what it takes to win an Americans with Disabilities Act case against a public institution that denied you meaningful access to its services. In the end, the Court of Appeals rules in favor of a prison inmate who was denied the use of his motorized wheelchair.

The case is Wright v. New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, decided on July 29. Wright is disabled. When he entered prison, they took away his motorized wheelchair and gave him a manual one, assigning inmates to help him get around the building. This is pursuant to the State's blanket policy against motorized wheelchairs by inmates. But Wright says this denies him meaningful access to prison programs and services, as he can only move around the manual wheelchair for short periods of time (it causes physical pain) and he is entirely dependent on the unreliable and ineffective mobility assistance program.

The law says these public facilities have to provide meaningful access to its services. The district court should not have granted the State summary judgment because the record does not conclusively show that Wright had that kind of access with the manual wheelchair, and he has been unable to use the law library, attend certain medical appointments and even reach the bathroom fast enough to avoid soiling himself. Since the mobility access program is ineffective and plaintiff has to rely upon the assistance of other inmates, he cannot engage in any spontaneous activity because an aide may not be around when he needs one. Applying the summary judgment principles in a faithful way, rejecting the State's argument that Wright does not have enough paper evidence to support his claim. the Second Circuit (Winter, Hall and Droney) notes that one reason why some of plaintiff's incidents were not sufficiently documented for the record is that plaintiff did not complain about them to avoid alienating the fellow inmates upon whom he relies for assistance. The State can save that argument for trial, because that's where this case is headed.

But wait, there's more. The Circuit says the State's blanket policy against motorized wheelchairs for inmates violates the ADA because the policy ignores the requirement that governmental institutions apply an individualized inquiry into the disabled plaintiff's circumstance in determining whether to deny his request for an accommodation. Under the burden-shifting scheme governing these cases, Wright satisfies the minimal burden of showing his accommodation -- allowing him the use of a motorized device -- is reasonable. To win the case, the State has to show the accommodation would constitute an undue hardship. It cannot do so. "We hold that DOCC's blanket ban on motorized wheelchairs violates the ADA and 'the Rehabilitation Act' because it precludes DOCCS from having to make an individualized assessment of a disabled inmate's particular needs." The Court holds for the first time that this individualized inquiry applies in the prison context. This means that general safety and administrative concerns are not enough for the State to win the case. The prison has to focus on the plaintiff's individual needs and circumstances. As plaintiff has presented evidence that the risks and costs of his motorized wheelchair are relatively low (he pays for the wheelchair, for example) and wheelchair is safe, the State's defense "may be overstated."

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