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Illinois: Disabled Detainees’ Discrimination Claims May Proceed to Trial

In a lengthy and well-reasoned opinion and order, U.S. District Court Judge Elaine E. Bucklo, for the Northern District of Illinois, denied cross-motions for summary judgment in a class-action suit brought by paraplegics and partially-disabled pre-trial detainees currently and formerly housed at the Cook County Department of Corrections. The plaintiffs alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12132, and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (RA), 29 U.S.C. § 794(a), and Judge Bucklo’s order, filed on November 25, 2009, paved the way for a trial on the merits of those claims.

In their amended complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants – the Sheriff of Cook County and Cook County itself – engaged in discrimination by failing to provide disabled prisoners with accessible toilets, sinks and shower facili-ties. As a result, they said they suffered a variety of injuries, including bed sores, rashes and infections arising from an inability to maintain proper hygiene. The plaintiffs additionally claimed they sustained injuries from falling while attempting to transfer from their wheelchairs to toilet seats, beds and shower chairs.

The defendants advanced several arguments in support of their motion for summary judgment, including: 1) that plaintiffs’ RA claim fails because the defendants are not recipients of federal funds; 2) that the plaintiffs’ ADA claim fails because showering and use of a sink do not qualify as “programs” or “activities” covered by the ADA, and in any event the plaintiffs failed to allege intentional discrimination, the plaintiffs cited to Title II rather than Title III of the statute, and be-cause the need to maintain institutional security rendered the defendants’ accommodation efforts reasonable; and 3) that the suit was barred by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), because the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies and failed to allege any physical injuries as a result of the discrimination.

With respect to exhaustion, the district court explained the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement does not apply to former prisoners and that, in any event, under a theory of “vicarious exhaustion,” the requirement would be deemed satisfied for the entire class if even one member of the class had exhausted available remedies. Moreover, the burden was on the de-fendants to prove failure to exhaust, and they had not shown that all of the class members had failed to exhaust available remedies. Likewise, the PLRA’s physical injury requirement did not apply to plaintiffs who had been released from custody before the suit was filed, and the plaintiffs had in fact alleged physical injuries in the form of bed sores and infections.

The defendants’ remaining arguments either failed on the merits or because, at the summary judgment stage, the court could not decide that a jury would not find in favor of the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment was denied as the district court found that “disputed issues of fact remain concerning the reasonableness of the requested modifications to the Prison’s facilities. This conclusion precludes summary judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor as much as it precludes summary judgment in favor of the defendants.” The court also denied the defendants’ motion for reconsidera-tion. See: Phipps v. Sheriff of Cook County, 681 F.Supp.2d 899 (N.D. Ill. 2009).

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Related legal case

Phipps v. Sheriff of Cook County