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Settlement Includes $78,000 in Damages Against Minnesota DOC for ADA Violations

On February 14, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a complaint in federal court for the District of Minnesota against the state Department of Corrections (DOC) concerning violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126, § 12101 et seq.

At issue was DOC’s requirement that all prisoners have a high school diploma or GED, or enroll in classes if they do not. ADA §§ 12131-34 apply to people with physical or mental disabilities, including Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and related conditions that impact their ability to learn, read or concentrate. DOJ’s complaint stated that prison officials failed to comply with ADA “by denying individuals with disabilities opportunities to apply for or receive needed modifications on the GED exam, courses or practice tests, such as extended [testing] time and frequent breaks.”

Specifically, DOJ accused DOC officials of failing to notify disabled prisoners about reasonable accommodations that were available to them, including private testing, one-on-one assistance, scribes, audio books and educational materials in alternative formats.

DOJ said that without accommodations, disabled prisoners “repeatedly fail[ed] their GED practice tests and exams and remain[ed] for months or years in the GED program, unable to progress to other opportunities like college programs or higher-paying jobs,” which constituted discrimination under ADA. Some disabled prisoners had been released without earning their GEDs due to the lack of educational accommodations.

The issues had already been addressed with DOC, which reached an agreement with DOJ to remedy the ADA violations. The terms were memorialized in a proposed consent decree filed with the complaint.

Under those terms, DOC will ensure that prisoners with disabilities have “an equal opportunity to benefit from the ... GED program, and are not subjected to discrimination in violation of the ADA.” Prison officials are required to make “reasonable modifications” to GED programs, including provision of “appropriate auxiliary aids and services for persons with impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills.” Further, DOC must evaluate and respond in a timely manner to prisoners’ requests for ADA accommodations, and “shall not prohibit, prevent, or otherwise hinder” them from seeking accommodations for GED exams.

DOC is also required to notify all prisoners of its policies and procedures for people with disabilities, including accommodations available to those enrolled in GED programs. The policy changes were to go into effect within 60 days, pending “good faith” efforts by DOC to hire a department-wide ADA compliance officer. Each state prison must also designate an employee to serve as an ADA education coordinator.

Prison officials agreed to monitor and report on compliance with the consent decree at six-month intervals for three years. The district court will retain jurisdiction over the case during that period. The decree also provided payment by DOC of up to $78,267 in compensatory damages to current and former prisoners whose rights under the ADA were violated when they were enrolled in GED programs. Each party will bear its own attorney fees and costs. See: United States v. Minn. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (D. Minn.), Case No. 0:23-cv-00367.  

Additional source: Equal Justice Initiative

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