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Vermont Prisons Subject to Human Rights Commission Jurisdiction

The Vermont Supreme Court has held that the Vermont Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act (The Act) applies to state prisons. That holding affirmed an order by the Washington Superior Court denying the Vermont Department of Corrections’ (VDOC) motion to quash the subpoena served by the Human Rights Commission (HRC), who was investigating a prisoner’s complaint.

The Act was implemented to provide a local enforcement mechanism for claims actionable under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to all public entities, including state prisons. Under Vermont Law, the HRC has jurisdiction to investigate and enforce complaints of unlawful discrimination in public accommodations.

VDOC argued the Act was not meant to apply to prisons, for they are not “places of public accommodation” that offer services or benefits to the “general public.” The Superior Court held that irrespective of whether the physical structures of government buildings, including prisons, are open to the public, state prisons “are essentially public places open to any member of the public unfortunate enough to meet the criteria for obtaining their services.” The Supreme Court agreed.

Moreover, review of the Legislative history of the Act reveals the legislature intended it to apply to all governmental entities. The purpose was to assure that when presented with an ADA complaint there is “a local, fairly quick way of resolving complaints.” Since the Act does not exempt state prisons, the Superior Court’s ruling was correct and affirmed. See: Department of Corrections v. Human Rights Commission, 917 A.2d 451 (Vt. 2007).

After the ruling the Department of Corrections has petitioned the legislature to amend the statute to remove Human Rights Commission jurisdiction to investigate complaints arising from the prison system.

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Related legal case

Department of Corrections v. Human Rights Commission