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Second Circuit Holds N.Y. Prisoner’s Short-Term Injury May Qualify As Disability under ADA

by Jo Ellen Nott

On June 30, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected a district court’s finding that a New York prisoner’s knee injury did not qualify as a disability due to its short-term nature.

The prisoner, Davonte Hamilton, suffered a dislocated knee and torn meniscus while playing basketball in the recreational yard of the Westchester County Jail in August 2018. In a suit he later filed, he faulted the crumbled concrete surface of the yard for contributing to the injury. Further, because the jail’s medical director disregarded the hospital’s recommendation for an immediate MRI, the injury was allowed to “settle,” he said, leaving him to suffer numbness and excruciating pain while standing, even with crutches.

Worse, because Hamilton’s housing unit lacked handicapped ramps, he was deprived of outdoor recreational activities. Entering and exiting the shower stall caused him excruciating pain because of a two-and-a-half-foot step, and once in the stall the plaintiff could not clean himself, since the showers did not have mats to provide traction for the crutches he needed to stay upright nor benches where he could sit nor rails to assist him in keeping his balance. Even being strip-searched after family visits was agonizing, he said, since the strip-search area also did not have a bench or rails.

Hamilton filed suit pro se under § 1983 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on September 13, 2018, accusing county officials and the jail’s privately contracted medical provider, Correct Care Solutions (CCS), of violating his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment, as well as Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. Defendants immediately moved to dismiss the complaint, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, claiming that Hamilton’s constitutional claims should fail because he didn’t show officials were deliberately indifferent to them and that his ADA claims should also fail because his injury was not a qualifying disability. District court judge Nelson S. Roman agreed and granted the motion.

Hamilton then turned to the Second Circuit. Taking up the appeal, the Court noted that the ADA Amendments Act passed by Congress in 2008 (ADAAA) broadened the definition of disability originally provided in the 1990 ADA legislation to include injuries that limit “major life activities” such as standing, walking, bending, and caring for oneself. 28 C.F.R. § 35.108(c)(1)(i). The Court also pointed out the temporal requirements for establishing a disability were relaxed under ADAAA, so that a disability lasting less than six months could be actionable under ADA, a precedent already established in other circuits. The Court rejected the defendants’ attempt to limit the duration of the qualifying injury to the time up to when Hamilton filed suit since the knee injury was serious enough to have lasted past the filing of the complaint.

Thus the Court found that the district court erred in dismissing Hamilton’s ADA claim on the basis the injury was temporary, though it didn’t determine whether the injury constituted a disability. The Court also affirmed dismissal of plaintiff’s constitutional claims and remanded the case for further proceedings. Hamilton was represented on appeal by appointed pro bono counsel, Tamara Livshiz of the New York City firm of Wachtel, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, with assistance from attorneys Samuel Weiss and Kelly Jo Popkin of Rights Behind Bars in Washington, D.C. See: Hamilton v. Westchester County, 3 F.4th 86 (2nd Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Hamilton v. Westchester County