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Federal Judge Orders Cook County to Correct Courthouse ADA Violations

by Derek Gilna

U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Gettleman issued an injunction on May 2, 2017, holding the Cook County Sheriff’s Office accountable for insufficient efforts to accommodate the needs of disabled prisoners who must access Cook County courthouses. The injunction ordered “defendant Cook County to move the privacy screens in each of the two holding cells at the Maywood Courthouse to provide the required 56 [inches] from the rear wall of the cells.”

Five disabled Cook County prisoners who were transported from jail to various courthouses and placed in holding cells in those facilities by Sheriff’s employees filed suit, alleging numerous violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 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).

In its order, the district court noted: “On November 19, 2015, the court granted plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment and entered judgment of liability in favor of plaintiffs and against defendants with respect to plaintiffs’ individual damage claims.... [T]he court found that the holding cells in the suburban courthouses, including the courts in Bridgeview and Markham, Illinois, were not ADA compliant, and that defendants had not been providing reasonable accommodations to overcome the structural barriers.”

The importance of those orders stems largely from the willingness of the federal district court to hold a municipal official to task and enforce compliance with the ADA. The judge had given the Sheriff’s Office numerous opportunities to comply with ADA requirements to provide a minimal standard of dignity to disabled Cook County jail prisoners related to their bathroom and court transportation needs.

The Sheriff had won numerous extensions after he promised to make various changes, issued new written policies and ordered the remodeling of the holding cell bathrooms; however, the district court found those changes fell short in many areas.

The court swept aside the defense’s argument that the plaintiffs’ requests for bathroom accommodations were “technically infeasible.” A public entity that elects to alter a facility must do so in a manner that makes the facility “readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities to the maximum extent feasible. 28 C.F.R. § 35.151(b)(1). The feasibility requirement has been construed as meaning ‘technical feasibility’ rather than ‘economic feasibility,’” the court wrote, citing Disabled in Action of Pa. v. Southeastern Pa. Transp. Auth.,635 F.3d 87 (3d Cir. 2011).

Nonetheless, the district court did find that the changes in the holding cell accommodations at the Bridgeview Courthouse were in compliance with its order, since full compliance with the ADA was, in that case, “technically infeasible.” See: Lacy v. Dart, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:14-cv-06259.

The parties have since filed cross appeals with the Seventh Circuit; although Judge Gettleman noted in a September 12, 2017 ruling that the defendants had “simply ignored” his previous order, he “reluctantly” stayed the injunction pending resolution of the appeals. Cook County’s jail system has previously faced litigation related to ADA violations, too. [See: PLN, June 2010, p.48; Feb. 2009, p.39]. 

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Related legal case

Lacy v. Dart