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Fourth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Deaf Prisoner’s Civil Rights Claim

by Derek Gilna

Thomas Heyer, who is completely deaf, was initially convicted of possessing child pornography, then violated his supervised release and was imprisoned for eighteen months in 2007. Before he was released from federal prison, prosecutors filed an Adam Walsh petition seeking to civilly confine him as a “sexually dangerous person.” While civilly confined at a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility at Butner, North Carolina, Heyer filed a civil rights suit for deliberate indifference to his medical condition, based upon that institution’s failure to provide him with an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. He also alleged violations of the Rehabilitation Act.

The federal district court granted summary judgment to the BOP, and Heyer appealed. On February 23, 2017, the Fourth Circuit vacated most of the summary judgment order and reinstated Heyer’s claims.

The appellate court noted that the Adam Walsh Act required Heyer to remain in civil custody “until such time as the government determines that his ‘condition is such that he is no longer sexually dangerous to others, or will not be sexually dangerous to others if released under a prescribed regimen of medical, psychiatric, or psychological care or treatment.’” Heyer had argued that the BOP’s failure to provide him with an ASL interpreter rendered him unable to receive the treatment required to establish that he was no longer sexually dangerous.

According to the Fourth Circuit, “BOP officials refused to provide qualified interpreters for any purpose until late 2012, more than a year after this case was commenced.” This caused Heyer, who has high blood pressure and cholesterol, and suffered multiple seizures while at Butner, to have difficulty communicating with healthcare professionals attempting to treat his serious medical conditions.

Although the BOP provided him with a prisoner helper, such an arrangement was still inadequate to “facilitate Heyer’s participation” in his Adam Walsh rehabilitation program. In 2012, the BOP finally provided him with an ASL interpreter, but only for part of the treatment program.

To establish a violation of federal civil rights as it relates to medical care, a prisoner must establish that the defendants acted with deliberate indifference. “In our view,” the Court of Appeals wrote, “Heyer’s evidence is more than sufficient to show the existence of serious medical needs ... he contends that the BOP’s failure to provide ASL interpreters for his medical interactions has led to constitutionally inadequate treatment for serious medical needs that have arisen during his confinement. We agree.”

The Fourth Circuit also agreed with Heyer that the prison’s policy of limiting his communication with the outside world to a “TTY” device, which was only occasionally available for his use, and never on weekends or evenings, violated his First Amendment rights, and that the BOP had failed to establish its policy “furthers its legitimate interest in maintaining prison security.”

“To summarize,” the appellate court wrote, “we conclude that Heyer has presented sufficient evidence to preclude summary judgment in favor of BOP on [his] medical-treatment claims (Counts IV and VI), safe-environment claim (Count VII), and videophone- and TTY-related First Amendment claims (Count VIII). We therefore vacate the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of BOP as to those claims, and we remand those claims for trial.”

The case remains pending before the district court, with the defendants filing a motion to dismiss in September 2017. See: Heyer v. Bureau of Prisons, 849 F.3d 202 (4th Cir. 2017). 

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