A federal appeals court has partially revived a disability discrimination case against St. Paul, Minn., based on the city’s post-arrest treatment of a deaf man.
On October 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed a summary judgment ruling in favor of St. Paul. The trial court had held that the city did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it failed to provide Douglas Bahl with a post-arrest interview after advising him of his Miranda rights. But the Eighth Circuit found that because a police sergeant told Bahl he would be interviewed and that a sign language interpreter would be present, “a reasonable jury could conclude that a public service had been initiated and was stopped due to Bahl’s disability.”
The Eighth Circuit also reversed a summary judgment for the city on its claim of vicarious official immunity for the post-arrest interview charge.
But the panel affirmed a ruling in favor of the city on two other claims. One was that the police officer’s use of simple communication and gestures during a traffic stop was reasonable and did not deny Bahl meaningful access to service under the ADA. The other was that a written statement of charges given to Bahl while he was arrested gave him adequate notification of the reason for his arrest.
Bahl was stopped in November 2006 after running a red light. He gestured that he wanted pen and paper to communicate and claimed the officer responded by pushing his shoulder and grabbing his wrist.
After Bahl pulled away and reached for paper and a pen, the officer sprayed him with “an aerosol subject restraint.” He was then restrained and taken to a hospital. At the hospital, the police gave Bahl a written charge statement.
The next day, while Bahl was in jail, a sergeant came to interview him. They communicated by writing. Bahl said he wanted an American Sign Language interpreter. The officer asked Bahl to read his Miranda rights on a form and initial each one to indicate he understood it. He also indicated he would look for an interpreter.
The sergeant never returned to interview Bahl. According to the ruling, the sergeant testified that he decided the interview wasn’t key for the city’s case and “did not justify the cost of an interpreter.”
In September 2007, a jury convicted Bahl of misdemeanor obstruction of legal process. He sued the city in July 2008 under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, the Minnesota Human Rights Act and common law negligence. He also sued the County of Ramsey and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department, but those claims were settled.
In December 2010, Senior Judge David Doty of the District of Minnesota issued the summary judgment rulings in favor of the city.
Eastern District of Missouri District Judge John Ross, who sat by designation on the Eight Circuit panel, wrote the majority opinion in Bahl v. City of St. Paul. Judges Diane Murphy and Raymond Gruender filed separate concurrences.
On the traffic stop claim Ross wrote, “The duties of police officers during a traffic stop call for the exercise of significant judgment and discretion, and we will not second guess those judgments, where, as here, an officer is presented with exigent or unexpected circumstances. In these circumstances, it would be unreasonable to require that certain accommodations be made in light of overriding public safety concerns.”
On the claim about the written charge statement, Ross wrote that Bahl “understood it well enough to write to another detainee that he had been arrested for fighting with the police.”
Ross then observed that the city isn’t required to conduct a post-arrest interview, but the ADA applies in the case because the sergeant “actually began the process and advised [Bahl] of his Miranda rights.…Unlike an arrest or a speeding ticket, a custodial interrogation with an interpreter would have afforded Bahl certain benefits, including the right to ask questions and tell his side of the story, which arguably could have affected the charging decision.…Because a reasonable jury could conclude that a public service had been initiated and was stopped due to Bahl’s disability, we reverse and remand for further proceedings on this claim.”
On whether the city has vicarious official immunity for police actions, Ross wrote that “the City has produced no standards or directives it uses to guide police supervisors and staff about how to communicate with deaf persons.” Individual officers are entitled to official immunity, but “the question is whether the City should be liable for failing to develop and implement an adequate policy,” Ross wrote.
In her one-paragraph concurring opinion, Murphy agreed with the majority that issues of material fact prevent a summary judgment ruling. Murphy also wrote that the lower court should consider whether the city has an adequate policy “to ensure effective communication with deaf individuals” under the ADA or Eighth Circuit case law.
Gruender filed a separate concurrence to address the issue of official immunity. He wrote that summary judgment for the city on this issue was improper because there’s not enough information in the record to determine whether the police officers’ extensive general communications training covered communicating with the hearing-impaired.
Bahl’s lawyer, Roderick Macpherson III, a staff attorney at the Minnesota Disability Law Center, said the Eighth Circuit correctly ruled that the officer’s refusal to interview Bahl after the arrest because he asked for an interpreter “pretty clearly violates the ADA.” The panel’s ruling on the immunity should also provide some clarity on Minnesota qualified immunity law, he said.
Macpherson said Bahl hasn’t decided whether to seek further appeal of the ruling on the traffic stop claim. “In the mean time, the good part is that the rest of his case will go back to trial and a jury will decide a question of violation and the question of his harm.”
St. Paul interim city attorney Jerry Hendrickson said, “We’re disappointed but we’re prepared to go back to the district court and defend the one remaining claim.”
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.