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Denying Deaf, Hearing-impaired Inmates an Interpreter Violates the Americans with Disabilities Act

June 23, 2023 (4 min read)
Person on a computer screen using sign language

Corrections Solutions 

 This article appears in the Spring 2023 Inmate Litigation Reporter, an exclusive quarterly digest analyzing new legal developments affecting the rights of people in prison -- developed specifically for people in prison.     

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Americans with Disabilities Act and Deaf Inmates 

 Key Takeaway: Denying a deaf or hearing-impaired defendant an interpreter during their criminal proceedings violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Luke v. Texas, 5th Circuit  

 Like many deaf individuals, Cameron Luke has trouble speaking and reading English. He also has difficulty lip reading. To effectively communicate, Luke required an American Sign Language interpreter. Such an interpreter was never provided during Luke's case for marijuana possession.  

 No interpreter was provided the night of his arrest during a traffic stop, even though his mother, who was watching the scene via FaceTime, urged the officers to provide him with one. No interpreter was present when Luke was booked and detained at Lee County Jail. Nor was one present when a Lee County justice of the peace charged him and released him on bond. No interpreter ever explained to Luke his legal rights, the charges against him, or the terms and conditions of his bail. 

The county court said that an interpreter would be provided for the hearing at which Luke was going to plead guilty in exchange for one year of probation. However, the court did not follow through on that commitment. Instead, it insisted that Luke's mother, who has only basic knowledge of sign language, interpret for her son during the hearing. No qualified interpreter ever explained to Luke the terms of his probation. 

Luke's experience on probation, which began with Lee County's (Tex.) Community Supervision Corrections Department but was later transferred to San Jacinto County's, was more of the same. Neither department provided Luke with an interpreter for his meetings with probation officers. Just like at the hearing, the probation officers instead had Luke's mother interpret for him. No qualified interpreter ever explained to Luke what happened during those meetings or whether he was satisfying the terms of his probation.  

Contending that the lack of interpreters left him "isolated and confused" during the criminal proceedings, Luke sued the following entities under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act: (1) Lee County, which operated the jail and court; (2) the Community Supervision and Corrections Departments of both Lee County and San Jacinto County, the Texas state agencies that oversaw his probation; and (3) the State of Texas. 

Luke sought injunctive relief against the Supervision Departments and the State of Texas and compensatory and nominal damages from all defendants. A federal district court dismissed all of Luke's claims at the pleading stage. It initially dismissed claims against the Supervision Departments on the ground that Luke's claims were moot because he had successfully completed probation. Responding to Luke's motion to reconsider the mootness dismissal because he also sought damages, the court maintained the dismissal but gave a different reason. This time it concluded the Supervision Departments enjoyed sovereign immunity.  

The court then granted Lee County's motion for judgment on the pleadings, again on sovereign immunity grounds. The court also granted Texas's motion to dismiss for improper service of process because Luke served the wrong Texas official. Luke appealed. 

The appeals court stated that in order to make out a claim under Title II, Luke had to show: (1) that he was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) that he was excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, services, programs, or activities for which the public entity was responsible, or was otherwise being discriminated against; and (3) that such discrimination was because of his disability. 

The court stated that Luke had sufficiently stated a Title II claim. The Supervision Departments contend there was no ADA violation because Luke's mother served as an interpreter. The court found that taking Luke's allegations as true, his mother knew only basic sign language. His mother's involvement did not fully inform him of the proceedings or otherwise provide the meaningful access the ADA required. 

Additionally, public entities cannot force a disabled person's family member to provide the interpretation services for which the entity was responsible. See 28 C.F.R. § 35.160(c)(2)

The court held that the claim against Lee County should proceed past the pleading stage. However, the court found that it was not so simple for the Supervision Departments and held that Luke's allegations satisfied step one of the abrogation test. The inquiry should proceed further and that the abrogation questions (as to sovereign immunity) would benefit from full briefing and initial consideration by the district court. 

The appeals court reversed the dismissal of Luke's claim against Lee County, vacated the dismissal against the Supervision Departments, and affirmed the dismissal against Texas due to faulty service of process. The case was remanded for further proceedings including consideration of whether Congress had validly abrogated state sovereign immunity for the claims against the Supervisions Departments. 

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