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Seventh Circuit Revives Claim of Wheelchair-Bound Wisconsin Prisoner Denied Access to Handicapped Toilet

by David M. Reutter

On October 25, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of a civil rights complaint filed by a former Wisconsin prisoner, who alleged that in 2018 he defecated on himself after being unable to access the handicapped toilet at Racine Correctional Institution (RCI). The Court found Terrance Shaw alleged sufficient facts to survive screening, so it reinstated his claims.

Shaw is confined to a wheelchair and is incontinent. He alleged that three times in 2018 he needed to use the handicapped bathroom at RCI, but each time his access was blocked by non-disabled prisoners occupying it. As a result, he defecated on himself each time.

After the first two incidents, Shaw informed prison staff, who simply shrugged; they could not control what toilets other prisoners used or reserve the handicapped stall solely for his use, they said. On the third instance, Shaw dragged himself painfully about 180 feet to find another bathroom before finally giving up and again defecating on himself.

Shaw filed a pro se complaint in federal court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch.126 § 12101 et seq.; the Rehabilitation Act (RA), 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.; as well as various constitutional violations, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The district court screened the complaint as required by 28 U.S.C. Section 1915A(a), as modified by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. While it found Shaw was unquestionably a qualified person with a disability, it said he failed to allege denial of access to any prison service and instead complained only about an “inconvenience” of prison life.

Shaw appealed, represented by attorney Amaris Montes with Rights Behind Bars in Washington, DC. By then no longer imprisoned, he sought only monetary damages. For that, he needed to identify intentional conduct – and not mere negligence – by a named defendant. The Seventh Circuit has interpreted that obligation to require a showing that defendants acted with deliberate indifference.

The Court found no dispute that Shaw’s incontinence and confinement to a wheelchair rendered him disabled under ADA and RA. “We have no difficulty concluding that a handicapped-accessible toilet for disabled prisoners amounts to a service, the denial of which could establish a claim under either statute,” the Court said.

Further, the Court continued, “Shaw plausibly alleges that the defendants breached their obligation of accommodating his disability by ensuring reasonable access to a handicapped toilet” because “[w]hen he complained that non-disabled prisoners were using the accessible toilet, the prion staff allegedly did nothing to help him.”

Those allegations were sufficient to state claims under ADA and RA, the Court decided. However, it also warned against overreading its conclusion; while the allegations survived the screening stage, Shaw has yet to prove his claim by showing deliberate indifference. Thus the district court’s order was reversed and the case remanded. See: Shaw v. Kemper, 52 F.4th 331 (7th Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Shaw is represented by attorneys with Strang Bradley LLC in Madison. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Shaw v. Kemper, USDC (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:21-cv-00049.

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