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Seventh Circuit Vacates ADA Summary Judgment Against Cook County Sheriff

by Derek Gilna

On July 30, 2018, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a partial summary judgment order issued by a district court that found the Sheriff of Cook County, Illinois liable for various violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

After holding an evidentiary hearing on the issue of liability and injunctive relief, the district court had referred the remaining issues to a jury to determine damages. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.56]. The appellate court set that order and the jury verdicts aside, and remanded the case for a trial on the merits.

As noted in the Seventh Circuit’s opinion, the five plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit “contend that Cook County and Thomas J. Dart, the Sheriff, failed to provide reasonable modifications with respect to two structural barriers at the courthouses: ramps and bathroom facilities. In order to access the courthouses for their monthly appearances, the [incarcerated] plaintiffs had to traverse steep entrance and exit ramps in their wheelchairs. Once inside, they waited in holding cells until their cases were called, which could take several hours. The holding cells contained bathroom facilities – typically a combination sink and toilet, set off by a translucent ‘privacy screen.’”

The district court found the defendants “had not consistently helped wheelchair-using detainees maneuver the ramps. It also found that the plaintiffs’ ‘witnesses consistently and credibly [had] testified to being unable to use the toilet facilities or being able to do so only with great difficulty, even when provided with a commode chair.’ The court further found that commode chairs were not provided, and the alternative policy of escorting detainees to public restrooms was not implemented, until mid-2014 – after the plaintiffs’ claims arose. Therefore, the court concluded that the ‘defendants have, in the past, violated plaintiffs’ rights pursuant to the ADA.’”

The accessibility claims related to ramps and bathroom facilities were raised against six courthouses in Cook County. The jury trials ordered by the district court to determine damages resulted in awards of $600 for one plaintiff and $0 for two other plaintiffs; a fourth plaintiff entered into a private settlement, while the fifth plaintiff agreed to a $0 judgment. The case was mainly brought to obtain injunctive relief, not monetary damages.

The Court of Appeals said the law was clear that “when a legal claim is joined with an equitable claim, ‘the right to jury trial on the legal claim, including all issues common to both claims, remains intact,’” citing Hussein v. Oshkosh Motor Truck Co., 816 F.2d 348 (7th Cir. 1987). The Court noted the district court had “improperly relied on its own findings of fact when it granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs on their damage claims”; further, legal claims are typically submitted to a jury before a court decides equitable claims.

“Judges usually ought to put jury-trial issues ahead of bench-trial issues,” the appellate court explained, “because that order is most respectful of constitutional interests.... Otherwise, the court might limit the parties’ opportunity to try to a jury every issue underlying the legal claims by affording preclusive effect to its own findings of fact on questions that are common to both the legal and equitable claims.”

In conclusion, the Seventh Circuit wrote, “we remand for a jury to decide whether the defendants violated the ADA for purposes of the relevant plaintiffs’ damage actions, and, if so, whether any violations were the result of intentional discrimination. We affirm the certification of the class and the grant of permanent injunctive relief with respect to the [bathroom] privacy screens. In sum, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Each party shall bear its own costs for this appeal.”

The case remains pending before the district court. See: Lacy v. Dart, 897 F.3d 847 (7th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Lacy v. Dart