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Tenth Circuit Says Prison Work Assignment Covered Under ADA Protections

by Kevin W. Bliss

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled on August 25, 2022, that prison employment falls under federally funded programs protected by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126, § 12101 et seq., as well as the Rehabilitation Act. As such, the Court said, claims of failure to accommodate a prisoner’s disability could potentially have merit based on the facts and should not be indiscriminately dismissed as frivolous.

Charles Williams was a prisoner at Colorado’s Buena Vista Correctional Complex. He suffered from nerve damage and chronic back pain and was issued several work restrictions to accommodate his disabilities. In September 2019, Williams was assigned to the kitchen detail, work he was unable to perform due to his condition. Nevertheless, he reported to work regularly with his restrictions in hand. He was immediately sent back to his dorm each day.

This routine continued until September 23, 2019, when Williams was in so much pain that he decided to request a medical appointment instead of reporting to work. Prison medical personnel supplied him with an excused absence from work, but by that time it was several hours past his scheduled reporting time. Williams received a disciplinary report for not showing up to work. He unsuccessfully grieved it, exhausting all administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. He then filed a discrimination suit pro se against the state Department of Corrections (DOC) in federal court for the District of Colorado.

The district court ruled Williams’ motion frivolous. It held established case law stated prison employment did not create the required employer/employee relationship necessary for protection from discrimination. In addition, Williams’ failure-to-accommodate claim prior to his work assignment did not provide a factual basis that he was adversely affected in his employment due to his disability. His case was dismissed. Williams appealed.

The Tenth Circuit ruled first that the district court relied upon outdated case law abrogated by Pa. Dep’t of Corr. v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206 (1998). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court stated prisons fell squarely within the statutory definition of a public entity: recreation, medical, and vocational programs, services, and activities were offered in prisons, and therefore explicitly covered by ADA protections. The Court went on to cite later case law that expanded these definitions to include telephone privileges, work assignments and more.

Thus, although Williams’ failure-to-accommodate argument was far from conclusive, it laid out a proper predicate that needed determination through legal proceedings, the Court said. Reversing the district court’s dismissal, it remanded the case for further review. Williams was represented at the Court by attorney Samuel Weiss of Rights Behind Bars in Washington, DC. See: Williams v. Colo. Dep’t of Corr., 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 23974 (10th Cir.).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Williams continues to be represented by his counsel. PLN will report further developments as they are available. See: Williams v. Denwalt, USDC (D. Col.), Case No. 1:21-cv-02595. 

Additional source: Colorado Politics

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