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Failure to Accommodate Deaf Prisoner Costs Oregon DOC $400,000

On November 3, 2016, a federal jury awarded a deaf former Oregon prisoner $400,000, finding prison officials had violated his civil rights by failing to accommodate his hearing disability.

David VanValkenburg, 51, is deaf and must communicate through a sign language interpreter. During his 13 years in the custody of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC),he was denied a qualified interpreter and access to jobs, programs and services available to non-disabled prisoners.

VanValkenburg filed suit in federal court, alleging that prison officials violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to accommodate his deafness. He sued for what he described as a “systemic failure to effectively communicate with him from the beginning of his prison term in November 2000.”

The case proceeded to trial and VanValkenburg’s attorneys, Matthew C. Ellis and Shenoa Payne, told the jury during opening statements that the ODOC’s May 12, 2012 non-discrimination and “effective communication policy” requires prison officials to make programs and services available to all prisoners on an equal basis, and to investigate the best ways to accommodate prisoners if they are deaf or hearing-impaired. Prison officials must also provide auxiliary aides and services to help prisoners compensate for their disability; those aides may include qualified interpreters, video phones, transcriptions or telephone relay services.

“On its face, this is a very good policy,” Payne told jurors. “But the evidence will show that the defendant did not practice what it preached.”

The ODOC’s policy had been adopted just days after Merle Baldridge, another deaf prisoner, filed suit in April 2012. As previously reported in PLN, ODOC officials paid Baldridge $150,000 and agreed to implement new regulations to ensure compliance with Oregon law and the ADA, to settle his lawsuit in January 2014. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.34]. Yet that settlement changed nothing for VanValkenburg and other deaf state prisoners.

VanValkenburg testified through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter that he had to communicate using written notes during several prison medical appointments. He said the note swapping was difficult and he could not completely understand what was going on or ask all the questions he had.

“I felt like I was missing a lot,” VanValkenburg testified. “I felt like a second-class citizen. I felt like I’m dumb, and I don’t like to feel that way,” he added through the interpreter. “It’s a lot longer process, and it’s a lot harder process.”

Assistant Attorney General Shannon M. Vincent argued that providing a qualified ASL interpreter every time VanValkenburg requested one would have caused prison officials undue hardship. She claimed that he was provided a qualified interpreter for at least one medical appointment in 13 years, and that was good enough.

Vincent also contended that VanValkenburg “was not a good candidate” for a prison canteen job that he had applied for, because it was a fast-paced environment and he could not “verbally communicate.”

Finally, she argued that VanValkenburg received two individual sessions with a counselor in lieu of a six-week, 18-hour release preparation class available to non-disabled prisoners that he was denied because he was deaf. VanValkenburg sat through the class anyway, but didn’t understand any of it. “I was very disappointed and angry,” he testified.

VanValkenburg’s attorneys asked the jury to award him $140,000 in damages for the violation of his rights and the unfairness, stigma and humiliation it caused. Soundly rejecting the ODOC’s defense, the jury instead awarded $400,000, including $200,000 for being denied an opportunity to apply for the prison canteen job; $80,000 for denial of an ASL interpreter during medical appointments; $80,000 for the denial of an interpreter so VanValkenburg could attend the six-week release preparation class; and $40,000 for not making a videophone available so he could contact his family and friends.

“This verdict is a referendum on the state prison’s practices of disregarding the rights of deaf inmates and treating them like second class citizens,” said Ellis and Payne. The ODOC “can no longer sit on its hands and let people with disabilities who have obvious communication needs suffer in silence.”

ODOC spokeswoman Betty Bernt said the prison system respected the jury process but was disappointed with the result. The state appealed the judgment in March 2017, while VanValkenburg’s attorneys are seeking over $911,000 in fees and costs. Both the appeal and fee petition remain pending. See: VanValkenburg v. Oregon Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 3:14-cv-00916-MO. 


Additional source: The Oregonian

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