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$695,000 Settlement in Discrimination Suit by Deaf Colorado Detainees

The City and County of Denver has paid $695,000 to settle a lawsuit that alleged systemic discrimination against deaf people detained or imprisoned at city and county jails and detention centers.

The lawsuit was filed by three former pre-trial detainees, the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC) and the Colorado Association for the Deaf (CAD). The detainees were all profoundly deaf; as such, they considered American Sign Language, not English, to be their primary language. In order to communicate effectively in situations involving medical or legal advice and decision making, the detainees required the services of a qualified sign language interpreter.

Shawn Vigil was received at the Denver County Jail (DCJ) on August 28, 2005; Roger Krebs was taken into custody on March 29, 2007 and housed at the Pre-Arraignment Detention Facility (PADF); and Sarah Burke was held at a police station and the PADF after her arrest on August 29, 2007.

None of them could hear or communicate verbally due to their deafness, which was known to jail officials. Solely on the basis of their disability, they were isolated from other detainees and placed in special needs housing.

Despite that placement, the DCJ and PADF had no policy, procedure or equipment in place to accommodate the needs of deaf or hard of hearing detainees, which deprived them of effective communications with jail staff. It also prevented them from placing telephone calls to friends, family members or legal counsel.

When Vigil entered the DCJ, he faced serious charges that could have resulted in a lengthy term of incarceration. The DCJ has a policy to determine a detainee’s risk of suicide; however, the inability of jail staff to communicate with Vigil rendered them unable to determine his mental status. The complaint alleged that this communication failure contributed to Vigil’s suicide attempt by hanging on September 27, 2005. He died four days later after being removed from life support.

Burke had diabetes, but was unable to communicate her medical needs or her need to have something to eat because she was hyperglycemic. She was not provided with a TTY device to make phone calls and was treated with callous indifference by jail staff.

On September 7, 2012, the parties reached a settlement in the lawsuit. A lump sum of $695,000 was paid to the law firm of King & Greisen to cover attorney fees and damages related to Vigil’s death and the emotional distress experienced by Krebs and Burke.

The settlement also provided that the federal district court would vacate its order dismissing CCDC and CAD as plaintiffs due to lack of standing. Consequently, CCDC and CAD were reinstated as plaintiffs so they could join in the settlement, which was finalized in October 2012. See: Ulibarri v. City and County of Denver, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:07-cv-01814-ODS-MJW.

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Related legal case

Ulibarri v. City and County of Denver