On August 31, a federal judge in New Jersey ruled that the Jersey City Municipal Court violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing an American Sign Language interpreter to Ryan Cuevas, a deaf litigant, who was trying to resolve a parking ticket in the Jersey City Court. Cuevas communicates primarily in ASL. He can also communicate by reading and writing in English and by using Ecuadoran Sign Language, but he cannot understand spoken English by reading lips.
U.S. District Judge Wigenton explained the circumstances of Cuevas’s case in her decision:
“At 8:04 p.m. on August 22, 2019, Plaintiff [Cuevas] was wrongly issued a ticket (the “Ticket”) for parking his car in a bus lane, which was prohibited only between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. The Ticket was accompanied by a summons directing Plaintiff to appear at an in-person hearing at JCMC [Jersey City Municipal Court]. Just days before that hearing, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (“NJMVC”) informed Plaintiff in a letter dated January 17, 2020, that it was suspending his registration and driving privileges because of a separate infraction—his failure to present proof of liability insurance. Although Plaintiff promptly resolved the liability-insurance issue, the NJMVC refused to reinstate his driving privileges until JCMC adjudicated the Ticket. While his license was suspended, Plaintiff could not drive and thus was incapable of earning income from driving.
JCMC holds multiple court sessions every weekday, and among other proceedings, it adjudicates parking tickets. At JCMC, persons who do not require interpretive services typically can resolve parking tickets during their first or second appearance in court. In addition, if a person who does not require interpretive services wishes to expedite the trial process, ‘most of the time the [presiding] judge will take [the case] to trial right away to get it adjudicated and resolved immediately.’
In contrast, JCMC holds court sessions on one day per month for persons who request an interpreter. That day—typically the first Wednesday of the month—is called ‘interpreter day.’ Pursuant to the Interpreter Day Policy, a person who needs interpretive services is not automatically provided an interpreter on an interpreter day; rather, he or she first must attend an initial appearance before a judge to specifically request one. Thereafter, JCMC staff will process the person’s request and adjourn his or her hearing to a future interpreter day on which the requested interpreter may be provided. Such adjournments are not always to the nearest interpreter day, and an adjournment to a specific interpreter day does not guarantee that JCMC will supply the relevant interpreter on that day. This has been the practice of JCMC for at least 16 years.”
Ryan Cuevas appeared in court twice in January 2020, believing that a sign language interpreter would be available to communicate with him. Cuevas requested an interpreter for his first court appearance, but none was present when he appeared in court. Appearing again in court three weeks later, there was no interpreter present. The judge postponed the traffic ticket case until March 2020. On that date, the JCMC’s designated “Interpreter Day,” again no interpreter was provided and Cuevas’s court date was postponed again.
His case was postponed multiple times over the next five months until August 5, 2020, one year after Cuevas received his parking ticket. On August 5, the traffic court found Cuevas not guilty of a parking violation, restored his suspended license, and revoked all parking fees and charges that had been assessed against him.
In December 2020, Cuevas filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against the JCMC, alleging that the court’s failure to provide him with his preferred method of communication, was illegal disability discrimination pursuant to the ADA.
In her ruling, Judge Wigenton held:
“A public entity [such as JCMC] is required to provide to deaf individuals their preferred auxiliary aid unless it can demonstrate “that either (1) the alternative aid and/or service provided was effective or (2) provision of the requested aid and/or service would not be required under [ 28 Code of Federal Regulations] Section 35.164.” Chisolm, 275 F.3d at 327 (citing 28 C.F.R. Pt. 35, App. A). Here, …. it is clear that JCMC failed to comply with the ADA’s regulatory directives and, thus, discriminated against Plaintiff.
In sum, the undisputed facts show that, rather than honoring Plaintiff’s request for an ASL interpreter, Defendant [JCMC] chose an alternative option: no accommodation at all. Failing to provide a deaf person access to the courts—as Defendant did here—is unquestionably discrimination under the ADA. See Lane, 541 U.S. at 522 (“Title II . . . seeks to enforce th[e] prohibition on irrational disability discrimination. But it also seeks to enforce a variety of other basic constitutional guarantees, infringements of which are subject to more searching judicial review. These rights include some, like the right of access to the courts at issue in this case, that are protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The federal court further decided that the interpreter day used by the Jersey City Court was not “accessible” to Cuevas and indeed was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, ruling: “Limiting deaf persons’ access to the court to only one day per month—a day on which an ASL interpreter might be present—is not a reasonable accommodation.”
The Jersey City court provided at best infrequent and undependable access to court services for people with communications disabilities. However, access for people without communication disabilities was far different.
As the federal court ruled:
“By contrast, persons without disabilities were given extensive access to JCMC. To be sure, they could attend JCMC from Monday through Friday; schedule an adjournment to any weekday session, depending on the court’s calendar; resolve parking tickets almost always on the first or second appearance and request an expedited trial, which the judge would grant “most of the time . . . to get [the case] adjudicated and resolved immediately. As such, the Interpreter Day Policy violated the general prohibitions against discrimination when it subjected Plaintiff to infrequent, inconsistent, and delayed access to JCMC—hurdles to which persons without disabilities were not subjected.”
Future federal court hearings may be held to decide whether JCMC must pay compensatory money damages to Cuevas under New Jersey law. Federal law allows for deliberate indifference or punitive damages if the Jersey City Court acted in a “willful and wanton manner by enacting and maintaining a discriminatory policy for at least 16 years and by denying Plaintiff’s multiple requests for an accommodation.” Such a determination will be made at a subsequent federal court hearing unless Cuevas and the JCMC settle the case first.
New Jersey municipal courts appear to not understand their ADA obligations. Jersey City is at least the third New Jersey Municipal Court, Camden and Newark are two others, that federal courts have recently found violated the ADA by not providing effective communications through sign language interpreters to deaf or hard of hearing litigants. The municipal courts’ lack of understanding has become very costly because of multiple federal court lawsuits and rulings that the municipal courts discriminate against people with disabilities.
© Bruce L. Adelson 2023. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only. No legal advice is intended or conveyed.
Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise. Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney. Mr. Adelson is a faculty member at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh School of Law where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.
Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive.