Illinois DOC’s Failure to Accommodate Disabled Prisoners

Illinois DOC’s Failure to Accommodate Disabled Prisoners

By Prison Legal News

In separate decisions, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of two lawsuits filed by disabled state prisoners, finding that the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) may have violated their rights under the Rehabilitation Act (RA) while skirting claims raised under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In May 2010, Phillip E. Jaros was sent to the Vandalia Correctional Center (VCC) to serve a two-year sentence for driving on a suspended license.

Medical records indicated that Jaros suffered from several serious physical ailments, including advanced osteoarthritis and vascular necrosis in his right hip. He required a cane to walk, and walking for more than a few minutes made him tired. He suffered chronic, severe pain, whether walking, sitting, standing, or lying down. Private physicians had recommended a hip replacement.

VCC was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and lacked grab bars for the physically disabled near toilets and in showers and walkways. Two days after his arrival at VCC, Jaros told Teanah Harter, a grievance coordinator, that he required such accommodations. She conceded that VCC was not ADA compliant but told Jaros “to just deal with it” because the prison’s administrators “did not do” medical transfers. Harter recommended that the warden deny a grievance filed by Jaros on the grounds that he could not be transferred as he had less than a year left to serve.

VCC’s failure to accommodate Jaros’ disability caused him to miss some meals because he could not walk fast enough to the cafeteria. He also limited himself to four showers a month out of fear that he would fall. Further, he alleged he was not approved for work release due to a “medical hold” placed in his file due to his disability.

Following his release, Jaros brought claims under the RA, ADA, and Eighth Amendment. The suit was dismissed at the screening stage for failure to state a claim, and he appealed.

The Seventh Circuit held that the district court had properly dismissed the Eighth Amendment claim because “the alleged conditions of Jaros’s confinement did not deprive him of life’s necessities.” The Court of Appeals then turned to the RA and ADA claims.

The ADA claim raised a thorny question of sovereign immunity. As Jaros could have only one recovery, the appellate court said it would dispense with that claim and instead examine his RA claim. To state an RA claim, Jaros only needed to allege that 1) he is a qualified person, 2) with a disability, and 3) the IDOC had denied him access to a program or activity due to his disability.

The Seventh Circuit wrote that a refusal to make reasonable accommodations is “tantamount to denying access,” and “although the Rehabilitation Act does not expressly require accommodation, ‘the Supreme Court has located a duty to accommodate in the statute generally.’”

The Court of Appeals found Jaros’ disability included a limitation on one or more major life activities. Incarceration itself is not considered a program or activity, but the meals and showers made available to prisoners are. Thus, VCC’s refusal to accommodate Jaros prevented him from accessing meals and showers on the same basis as other non-disabled prisoners.

The appellate court said the IDOC put Jaros in a “classic Catch-22.” It would not add grab bars at VCC because other facilities accommodated handicapped prisoners, but he could not be transferred to one of those other facilities because he had less than one year remaining on his sentence. The Seventh Circuit held this presented a plausible RA claim; it also held that Jaros stated an RA claim for being denied work release because he walked with a cane, despite meeting all requirements for work release.

Accordingly, the district court’s dismissal of the ADA and Eighth Amendment claims was affirmed, and the case was remanded for reinstatement of the RA claim. The Court of Appeals also recommended the appointment of counsel. See: Jaros v. Illinois Department of Corrections, 684 F.3d 667 (7th Cir. 2012).

Following remand, on August 1, 2012, the district court ordered service on the IDOC, which was the only remaining defendant in the case. Counsel was appointed to represent Jaros. The IDOC filed a motion for summary judgment on January 4, 2013, which remains pending. See: Jaros v. Illinois Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ill.), Case No. 3:11-cv-00168-JPG-PMF.

In a separate ruling, the Seventh Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a wheelchair-bound Illinois prisoner’s denial of outdoor exercise claim.

Prisoner Marc Norfleet is confined to a wheelchair due to an unspecified “nerve condition.” He filed suit alleging that IDOC officials deprive disabled prisoners of outdoor exercise unless at least nine other disabled prisoners also want outdoor recreation. He claimed that due to this “quorum requirement,” he was denied outdoor exercise for seven consecutive weeks, in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the ADA. The district court dismissed his suit sua sponte before the defendants responded.

The Seventh Circuit reversed, focusing exclusively on Norfleet’s ADA claim. “The quorum rule seems arbitrary,” the appellate court suggested, “especially since recreation, including aerobic exercises that cannot be performed in a cell … is particularly important to the health of a person confined to a wheelchair.”

Noting that the ADA was the only statute Norfleet cited, the Court of Appeals observed that the ADA “may not be available to him because it is an open question whether state officers are immune from suits under that Act,” citing United States v. Georgia, 546 U.S. 151 (2006) [PLN, March 2006, p.14].

As in Jaros, however, the Court found that “the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 701 et seq., is available to him, and courts are supposed to analyze a litigant’s claims and not just the legal theories that he propounds.” As such, his suit had been “dismissed prematurely.”

Norfleet’s appellate briefing incorporated by reference his brief seeking reconsideration in the district court, which, the Seventh Circuit observed, is forbidden and commonly fatal to an appeal. A close examination of Norfleet’s briefing, however, led the Court of Appeals to excuse his rules violation because it was a technical violation that did not cause harm or prevent substantial compliance.

The appellate court also excused any pleading deficiencies under Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) [PLN, July 2009, p.18], finding that “as a pro se (as well as a prisoner and thus severely limited in his ability to conduct the kind of pre-complaint investigation required by Iqbal), the plaintiff has pleaded enough to avert dismissal.”

The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings, where it remains pending. See: Norfleet v. Walker, 684 F.3d 688 (7th Cir. 2012).

(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)