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$1,050,000 Settlement Reached in Disabled Illinois Prisoner’s ADA Lawsuit

by David M. Reutter

After a verdict was returned by a federal jury in favor of a disabled Illinois prisoner against the state Department of Corrections (DOC), the parties reached a settlement agreement for $1,050,000 — inclusive of attorney’s fees and costs — and attorneys for Plaintiff signed off on a satisfaction of the judgment on July 7, 2022.

The award was made to William Richard, who remained for almost a year at an intake prison where he was subjected to restricted conditions and deprived of services, programs, and activities due to his disability. In its verdict returned on August 25, 2021, the federal court for the Northern District of Illinois found the prisoner was deprived of his rights under federal disabilities legislation, as well as the Eighth Amendment.

When Richard entered Illinois’s Northern Reception and Classification Center (NRCC) in June 2015, he was 61 years old and suffered from asthma, emphysema, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease. He used an oxygen tank, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, and a cane or walker.

Prisoners entering DOC are received at NRCC and typically stay for one to two weeks before being transferred to a “parent” prison to serve their sentence. While held at NRCC, prisoners are significantly more restricted than in general population settings at parent prisons.

As observed by the Court, when ruling on the complaint Richard later filed, conditions at NRCC in many ways resemble those in disciplinary segregation. For instance, NRCC “has no day room, gym, library, educational or vocational programs, or out-of-cell religious services.” Prisoners “eat meals in their cells, which lack natural light and electrical outlets, where they remain 22-24 hours a day.”

Just eight days after his arrival at NRCC, Richard was approved for transfer to Western Correctional Center. But when the transfer bus arrived and a guard saw Richard’s oxygen tank, he was not allowed to board. Instead he was told to await another transfer. A month later, NRCC Superintendent Tracy Engleson contacted the DOC Transfer Coordinator’s Office to arrange car transport for Richard.

NRCC Assistant Warden Ricardo Tejeda began in October 2015 to receive weekly reports that Richard had been at the prison over 90 days due to “ADA transport.” Richard talked to Tejeda about his situation on October 5, 2015. He was told the matter would be looked into.

In December 2015, Richard filed a grievance stating he had been at NRCC for six months. When he did not receive a response, he filed another grievance in February 2016. A third grievance was filed on April 7, 2016. A transfer approval to Dixon Correctional Center was finally issued on April 8, 2016. Richard, however, was still not transferred to that prison — by car — until June 1, 2016.

With the assistance of Chicago attorney Amanda C. Antholt and co-counsel Samantha Reed of Equip for Equality in Chicago, Richard then filed his complaint with the Court, accusing DOC of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., as well as the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

Defendants immediately moved for summary judgment. But the Court denied their motion on July 16, 2021, noting they did not dispute that Richard was a qualified person with a disability nor that for 11 months he was subjected to conditions at NRCC that included deprivation of services, programs, and activities enjoyed by other prisoners who did not have a disability. While Richard did not advance the theory, the Court also said he could have claimed the transport from NRCC to a parent prison was also a service to which he was denied equal access. See: Richard v. Pfister, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133313 (N.D. Ill.).

The case proceeded to a two-day jury trial that concluded on August 3, 2021. The Court then entered judgment on August 24, 2021, reflecting the jury verdict awarding Richard $750,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages.

Defendants moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and remittitur of the damage award on September 21, 2021, but the Court denied that motion on January 6, 2022. Defendants then filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on February 8, 2022. See: Richard v. Pfister, USCA (7th Cir.), Case No. 22-1197.

Before that could be heard, on March 9, 2022, the parties notified the district court that they had reached a full settlement of the case. Under their agreement, $750,000 was designated for Richard and $300,000 for his attorneys’ costs and fees. See: Richard v. Pfister, USDC (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:17-cv-04677. 

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Related legal cases

Richard v. Pfister

Richard v. Pfister

Richard v. Pfister