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Federal Court Upholds New York Prison System’s Denial of Motorized Wheelchairs; Second Circuit Reverses

In a September 30, 2015 order, a fed­eral district court held that the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) could deny prisoners the use of wheelchairs with electric motors because the Department’s use of prisoners assigned to push unmotorized wheelchairs, known as “mobility aides,” was a reasonable accommodation. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and vacated the order.

New York prisoner Nathaniel Wright, 53, suffered deformed legs due to cerebral palsy when he was a child. The deformation and scoliosis limit his ability to walk, even using a cane, and cause him a great deal of pain when he propels himself with an unmotorized wheelchair. Wright used an electric wheelchair before his arrest, at the county jail and at the DOCCS reception facility. However, once he arrived at his assigned prison his electric wheelchair was confiscated; he was issued an unmotorized wheelchair and told he could use mobility aides to get to the toilet, meals, programming and medical appointments. Wright filed suit in federal court alleging that the blanket denial of motorized wheelchairs by DOCCS violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act (RA).

With the assistance of attorneys Samuel C. Young and Joshua T. Cotter of Legal Services of Central New York, Wright requested a temporary injunction requiring DOCCS to allow him to use his electric wheelchair. The motion was denied and Wright appealed. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the denial but instructed the district court to determine whether the blanket denial made the DOCCS an outlier among the nation’s prison systems.

On remand, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court determined that 32 state DOCs and the federal prison system allow wheelchairs with electric motors, while they are banned in 18 states. This meant that New York’s prohibition against motorized wheelchairs was in the minority among U.S. prison systems, but DOCCS was not an outlier.

The district court also determined that Wright had never brought alleged deficiencies in the mobility aide system to the attention of prison officials. His desire not to get mobility aides who refused to do their jobs in trouble (and thus risk being labeled a snitch) worked against him, as the court found that the only evidence that the mobility aide system was insufficient was Wright’s own affidavit in support of his summary judgment motion. The court maintained that some additional documentation of Wright’s alleged inability to get to the toilet or other places should exist even if he failed to file grievances about specific incidents. Essentially, it held that Wright failed to prove he was denied meaningful access to programs, services and activities under the mobility aide system.

The district court also found that while Wright had a right to reasonable accommodation, he did not have a right to the accommodation of his choice. Although expressing skepticism about security concerns raised by DOCCS should motorized wheelchairs be permitted, and noting that the suit might have succeeded had it been a class-action, the court denied Wright’s motion for summary judgment and instead granted summary judgment to the defendants. See: Wright v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Corr. & Cmty. Supervision, U.S.D.C. (N.D. NY), Case No. 9:13-cv-00564-MAD-ATB.

Wright appealed and the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s order on July 29, 2016. The Court of Appeals held “that the district court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of DOCCS because there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the mobility assistance program provides Wright meaningful access to DOCCS services and as to whether allowing Wright the use of his motorized wheelchair would unduly burden DOCCS. In arriving at this conclusion, we further hold that DOCCS’s blanket ban on motorized wheelchairs – without an individualized inquiry into the risks of allowing a mobility-impaired inmate to use his or her motorized wheelchair – violates the ADA and the RA.”

The Second Circuit noted that Wright’s cell was “about thirty feet from the bathroom,” and that “making this trip on his own causes him a great deal of pain, and, on more than one occasion, he has defecated or urinated on himself.” Additionally, Wright was “unable to perform a number of jobs that he would otherwise be able to perform if he had access to his motorized wheelchair, including being a part of the lawn and grounds crew,” and he avoided going to the recreation yard because he feared that “he would be unable to escape quickly in the event of a prison fight.”

The appellate court also found that “Wright did not refuse to engage with DOCCS in an interactive [complaint] process. Rather, Wright informally complained to correction officers, and his counsel wrote four unanswered letters attempting to resolve the conflict prior to initiating litigation. On this record, it appears that DOCCS was well aware of Wright’s issues with the mobility assistance program but ... did not evaluate Wright’s specific individual needs. DOCCS’s failure to engage in an interactive process with Wright and his attorney is DOCCS’s shortcoming, not Wright’s. This lack of interactive process is no basis for granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants.”

Accordingly, the case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings, where it remains pending. See: Wright v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Corr. & Cmty. Supervision, 831 F.3d 64 (2d Cir. 2016).

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Related legal cases

Wright v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Corr. & Cmty. Supervision

Wright v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Corr. & Cmty. Supervision