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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Wisconsin Prisoner’s ADA Claim for Untreated Knee Injury

Matt Clarke

On August 25, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reinstated a Wisconsin prisoner’s claim that officials with the state Department of Corrections (DOC) violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101, et seq., by refusing to make reasonable accommodations for his injured knee and assign him to a lower bunk.

After Lee A. Brown fell and injured his knee at Redgranite Correctional Institution in October 2020, he was accommodated with a wheelchair, crutches and assignment to a lower bunk. Several weeks later, he was transferred to Oshkosh Correctional Institution (OCI) and housed in a single-bunk segregation cell. Multiple requests for medical treatment for his knee then went ignored, he said, and OCI officials moved him to general population. He was assigned to a two-person cell where another disabled prisoner already had the lower bunk. After Brown fell climbing onto the top bunk, a prison doctor told him that he needed knee surgery, but DOC would not approve it because he was “too young.”

Brown requested that the “special needs committee” provide “accommodations.” That request was refused. He then filed suit pro se in federal court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, accusing OCI officials and medical administrator Dawn Fofana of failing to provide reasonable accommodation for his disability when they refused to assign him to a lower bunk and failing to provide medical care for his injured knee while in segregation.

The trial court dismissed the ADA claim at the screening phase, holding that it was an allegation of “inadequate medical treatment, which is not a proper claim under the ADA.” Later, the same court granted Fofana summary judgment after finding she was not involved in provision of medical care. With the assistance of D.C. attorney Samuel Weiss of Rights Behind Bars, Brown appealed dismissal of the ADA claim.

He contended it was a “failure-to-accommodate” claim even if he did not use that exact term, citing Jaros v. Ill. Dep’t of Corr., 684 F.3d 667 (7th Cir. 2012), to argue that pleading standards were not that exacting. The Seventh Circuit agreed that he was required to plead only that he is a “qualified individual with a disability” who “by reason of such disability” was “denied the benefits or the services, programs or activities of a public entity,” borrowing language from ADA. “An allegation that the defendant failed to make reasonable accommodations can state a violation of Title II of the ADA,” the Court said, pointing to Shawn v. Keller, 52 F.4th 331 (7th Cir. 2022).

The Court rejected Defendants’ assertion that Brown’s failure to use the words “failure-to-accommodate” or “assignment to a lower bunk” in his pleadings was fatal. Rather it held that the specific accommodation requested was not needed at the pleading stage. It affirmed judgment with respect to Fofana and vacated all other aspects of the trial court’s decision, remanding the case for a “reset” on the remaining claims. See: Brown v. Meissner, 81 F.4th 706 (7th Cir. 2023).

Back at the district court, Brown once again proceeded pro se, and his second amended complaint was accepted; but the court was unable to determine what most of the various named defendants had done that demonstrated deliberate indifference to his serious medical need. It dismissed all defendants on January 29, 2024, except for the prison’s ADA coordinator, Sheri Fromolz. The case remains pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. Brown v. Meisner, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14988 (E.D. Wis.).   

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Related legal cases

Brown v. Meisner

Brown v. Meissner