One of my more popular blog entries is the blog entry that discusses suing a state court system for disability discrimination . Here is another case along those lines. In Phillips v. New Hampshire Circuit Court, Eighth Circuit, District Division, 2014 WL 495656 (D. N.H. February 5, 2014) (unpublished decision), the plaintiff had a severe mental illness and alleged that without taking strong antipsychotic medication he could not possibly understand legal proceedings. He was a defendant in a noncriminal proceeding during the course of which there were four hearings. At each hearing, the plaintiff requested some kind of accommodation for his mental health condition and the state court denied each request. Furthermore, the state court ordered the plaintiff NOT to take his prescribed medication. The plaintiff asserted the court’s directive greatly hindered his ability to understand the proceedings, affected his emotional state, and prevented him from defending himself properly. He brought suit against the state court, the state court clerk, and the presiding state court judge alleging that they all violated § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and title II of the ADA when they ordered him not to take his medication and failed to provide him with reasonable accommodation for his mental illness. He sought both injunctive relief and damages. It is a short opinion, but even so, there were three issues before the court. First, was the judge immune from suit? Second, does title II of the ADA or § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act authorize a claim for damages against state officials in their individual capacities? Third, even assuming judicial immunity applies, can the public entity be vicariously liable for the acts of its employees?
With respect to judicial immunity, sound policy reasons exist for having judges immune from individual liability for money damages with respect to acts performed within the scope of their jurisdiction even if they make a mistake, or act with bad faith or malice. After all, it is hard to believe that a judge could do his or her job if he or she thought they might be individually liable for damages for their rulings. Or, as the District Court of New Hampshire noted, the power of the judge to control his or her own proceedings, the conduct of the participants before him or her, the actions of officers of the court and the environment of the court, is a power absolutely necessary for the court to function effectively and do its job of administering justice. Judicial immunity applies here because the judge issued rulings dealing with his request for accommodations, a judicial act.
With respect to individual capacity claims under title II of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, neither title II of the ADA nor the Rehabilitation Act authorizes claim for damages against defendants sued in their individual capacities. For that matter, there are numerous cases out there that say in the title I context, individual liability is not an option there either.
With respect to the last issue, while the judge may have judicial immunity with respect to individual liability for his or her acts, that doesn’t mean that the entity employing the judge is off the hook. When a plaintiff brings suit under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act (§ 504), the public entity is vicariously liable for the acts of its employees, and plaintiffs with disabilities may sue to require state court to make reasonable accommodation to allow them to participate in legal proceedings. Accordingly, the court (citing to U.S. v. Georgia, 546 U.S. 151, 159 (2006) and to Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509, 533-34 (2004)), found that the facts were sufficient to warrant service of the complaint with respect to the disability discrimination claims under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act against the individual state court defendants in their official capacities and against the state court.
While a judge may be off the hook for making discriminatory rulings against a person with a disability with respect to individual liability, the public entity employing the judge is not. Thus, training is absolutely critical. That training needs to take two forms. First, there needs to be a personal touch in some way so that personnel can see and hear just what it means to comply with title II of the ADA in the state court system. If that trainer is an attorney with a disability, all the better as a lot of ADA compliance, in my opinion, involves understanding the mindset of a person with a disability as well as knowing the law. Second, it is absolutely critical that a state court compliance manual be developed. There are some excellent resources that you can start with (for example, I have reviewed the title II compliance manual put out by the Illinois Atty. Gen.’s office, which is quite good, but, like many things, could be improved upon), but such a resource is not a substitute for having a qualified attorney make sure that the manual is comprehensive, accurate, clear, and not confusing. Finally, any such training needs to be sure to focus on the concept of what I have referred to over the years in my writing, including my book, as the, “starting line.” That is, reasonable accommodations/modifications is all about an interactive process that gets the person with a disability to the same starting line as the person without a disability. Therefore, it should be an unusual situation where a judge would have to completely deny any accommodation to a person with a disability before him or her.