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Deaf Prisoners in Washington Seek Class-Wide Relief

by David C. Fathi, Jeff B. Crollard and Leonard J. Feldman

Lawyers representing two deaf prisoners in a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) are seeking to broaden the suit into a class action on behalf of all deaf and hearing impaired prisoners in the custody of WDOC.

Duffy v. Riveland began in 1992, when Sean Duffy filed suit in federal court, alleging that WDOC's failure to provide him with a qualified sign language interpreter for a prison disciplinary hearing violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (RA), and Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 2.42.120. The district court granted summary judgment against Duffy, but the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings. See Duffy v. Riveland , 98 F.3d 447 (9th Cir. 1996). [PLN. Jan. 1997].

Back in the district court, Duffy was consolidated with C.A. v. Lehman , another case brought by a deaf prisoner challenging WDOC's failure to provide qualified interpreters and other accommodations needed by deaf persons in prison. On December 1, 1997, lawyers for both plaintiffs filed a motion for leave to file an amended complaint on behalf of a plaintiff class consisting of "all deaf and hearing impaired persons who are now, or who will in the future be, committed to the custody of the DOC."

The proposed amended complaint alleges that WDOC officials fail to provide deaf and hearing impaired prisoners with qualified interpreters for disciplinary hearings, classification proceedings, medical encounters, educational programs, and other prison programs, services, and activities. It further alleges that prison officials fail to provide these prisoners with assistive devices and auxiliary aids (such as visual alarm systems), or with access to TTY telephones that is equal to the access hearing prisoners have to regular telephones. The complaint alleges that this failure violates the ADA, the RA, RCW 2.42.120, and the United States Constitution, and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

The decision to seek class-wide relief was made after it became apparent that WDOC's failure to accommodate the needs of deaf and hearing impaired prisoners is not limited to one or two individual cases, but is systemic in nature. In addition, it became clear that WDOC itself does not know how many such prisoners are in its custody. In response to a discovery request, WDOC identified nine deaf prisoners, but plaintiffs' counsel, through their own investigations, discovered additional deaf prisoners apparently unknown to WDOC. Based on the incidence of hearing impairment in prison populations generally, there are probably more than 100 deaf and hearing impaired prisoners in WDOC who may need sign language interpretation or other assistive services to allow them to participate in critical prison programs and activities.

The court will probably rule on the plaintiffs' motion to file their class action complaint in February of 1998. Trial in Duffy v. Riveland is scheduled to begin October 5, 1998.

The authors are counsel for the plaintiffs in Duffy v. Riveland and C.A. v. Lehman . Any deaf or hearing impaired Washington state prisoner who believes his or her special needs are not being met should write to David C. Fathi at: 101 Yesler Way, Suite 301, Seattle, WA 98104.

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Related legal case

Duffy v. Riveland