Federal authorities are reviewing the Connecticut Judicial Branch’s compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, prompted by complaints it has received from two women who claim they were not provided with equal access to the courts as required under the ADA.
The Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s Office acknowledged it has launched a review, which will look at all aspects of the state court system.
“This review will examine ADA complaints that the Judicial Branch has received, the responses, and the accommodation process. It will also examine the training that the judges and support staff receive regarding the ADA,” John B. Hughes, an assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the Connecticut office’s Civil Division, wrote in a letter to one of the women who brought complaints.
Hughes said his office will take a look at “inquiries into the family court and divorce court processes,” focusing “only on the ADA, and not other matters.”
In its aim to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, the ADA requires employers, businesses and all public agencies provide equal access to public services.
Anyone with any disability who uses state and federal courts must be provided with accommodations to ensure equal access. That includes, but goes far beyond, providing wheelchair ramps and handicapped-accessible courtrooms. The law also mandates that courts provide visual aids, real-time court transcripts, sign-language interpreters and other services that level the playing field for people with disabilities. Those accommodations, the law says, are to be provided upon request, with few questions asked.
The Judicial Branch has built an internal ADA program over the years. Court administrators say they are proud of those efforts, which have been stepped up in recent years following recommendations by the Access To Justice Commission created by Chief Justice Chase Rogers.
For instance, all policies, procedures, and forms relevant to the ADA are featured prominently on the Judicial Branch website.
Sandra Lugo-Gines, the ADA program manager for the Judicial Branch, said her office recently approved a new training for employees on how to respond to requests from people who want to bring seeing-eye dogs and service animals into the courtroom. “Every request for accommodation is taken seriously,” she said.
The women who brought the complaints, Elizabeth Richter of Canton and Susan Skipp of Litchfield, had both represented themselves in separate, highly-contested family court proceedings.
Richter won custody of her two children after a lengthy court fight that started in 2006. In 2012, she filed a federal lawsuit against the Judicial Branch for violating the ADA during that process. Earlier this year, she contacted the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to make an official ADA complaint.
Among Richter’s claims is one that the Judicial Branch failed to grant accommodations she requested for her two children, who both have disabilities related to their vision.
Additionally, Richter said she was discriminated against by judges and court officials because of a “a misdiagnosis” incorrectly made 30 years ago. As a result of the conclusions the judge made based on that mis-information, Richter said, she suffered from discriminatory remarks and harassment by the court.
“The point is, no person should be denied or threatened with the denial of their constitutional right to be a parent based upon a mental health disability,” Richter said in an interview. “This business of an opposing attorney approaching a litigant with a mental health disability, bullying and harassing that litigant based upon their disability, [and] capitalizing on the bigotry that is common among many attorneys and judges … is a wholly unacceptable culture to have in a courtroom.”
She claims the way she was treated in Superior Court in the custody matter “undercut my ability to present my case.”
The other complaining party is Skipp, a mother of two from Litchfield. She has also filed a federal lawsuit against the Judicial Branch in which she claims her legal rights under the ADA were violated. Skipp, who continues to fight for custody of her children, claims a diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder was improperly used against her during her divorce case and that she was denied access to court transcripts, which would have assisted in her preparation.
Skipp claims the judge made decisions based on false impressions about her.
“It’s common in family court, where one of the parents is accused of some mental illness,” Skipp said. “I have PTSD, but that doesn’t impede my parenting ability.”
Lisa Vincent, a Torrington lawyer who assisted Skipp in preparing legal briefs for her custody case appeal, said it’s her understanding that the court refused to provide Skipp with “equipment that would have helped her” during hearings. Specifically, Vincent said, Skipp had requested transcribing equipment that would provide her with “real time transcripts,” but the equipment was not provided.
Vincent said it’s her impression that “many folks with mental health impairments often leave the courts feeling upset because they haven’t been able to participate in the process. I think we could do better, as a system, to improve that.”
Other attorneys who advocate for the rights of disabled people said the Judicial Branch has taken steps to improve access to the courts and comply with the ADA, but could do better.
Michelle Duprey, a New Haven lawyer and advocate for people who have disabilities, won a settlement agreement with the state last year after she filed a lawsuit against the XL Center in Hartford and State of Connecticut alleging the center failed to comply with the ADA because it did not provide seating for people in wheelchairs.
Duprey, who uses a wheelchair herself and is the director of the Department of Services for Persons with Disabilities for the City of New Haven,said she heard the Judicial Branch was facing the investigation into its practices. “People with disabilities have long had a disadvantaged position in the system in Connecticut,” Duprey said.
Another attorney watching the federal review of the Judicial Branch is Melissa Marshall, an attorney in West Hartford who trains schools, businesses and government agencies across the country on ADA compliance.
“There has been a historic pattern of problems with access to the courts, and there has long been an attitude that if you had a mental illness, you couldn’t be a parent,” Marshall said. “This is part of our long history as a country.” Despite improvements over the years, Marshal said, prejudices against people with physical and mental disabilities remain.
“They’ve made a good-faith effort, they have an ADA coordinator,” Marshall said of the Connecticut Judicial Branch. “But more could be done. It’s not just the Judicial Branch; it’s the [rest of] state government, too. I think with more intensive training, people who work in those settings could understand that it’s about respect. That’s what most people who sue on discrimination issues really want.”
Judicial Branch administrators declined to discuss specific complaints. But they noted the many new programs over the years to ensure ADA compliance, including sensitivity training for judges and staff members. More training programs are being planned.
Dierdre McPadden, who is the director of Judge Support Services within the Department of Court Operations, said court administrators have created a centralized process for reviewing requests for accommodations.
Once a written request for an accommodation is made, an ADA coordinator in each judicial district makes a decision on how the request will be handled. If a request is denied, the person who makes it can petition for their cause. “Everyone has a right to file a complaint if they’re not happy with a decision,” said Lugo-Gines, the Judicial Branch ADA coordinator.
In response to the federal ADA review, McPadden and other court administrators said they have already provided authorities with documentation of the accommodations review process, along with descriptions of training programs and ADA complaint protocols at the Superior Court level.
“I’m aware a complaint was made,” McPadden said. “I really don’t know the specifics of that, but I did gather some information in response to a compliance survey I received last fall.
McPadden said she has gathered information for federal authorities relating to a trend court administrators first noticed in 2012, when requests for ADA accommodations started being made “at a greater rate.” McPadden said judges were reminded at that time to follow the administrative process in reviewing requests for ADA accommodations that had been created years before.
“The Office of Chief Court Administrator notified the entire bench – Superior Court judges, senior judges, judge trial referees and family support magistrates — that rulings on ADA accommodations should be handled through the administrative process, and not from the bench,” McPadden said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has taken complaints of ADA violations seriously over the years. In 2006, the office and Judicial Branch reached a settlement agreement following an investigation into claims that the state courts failed to provide a sign language interpreter for a criminal defendant who faced trial in 1999.
The Judicial Branch did not admit any wrongdoing. But under the agreement, court administrators agreed to provide at state expense “appropriate auxiliary aids and services, including qualified interpreters, when necessary to provide effective communication” that is equally as effective as that provided for those without hearing impairment.
Acting U.S. Attorney Dierdre Daly declined to comment on the review of complaints against the Judicial Branch. Hughes, who also declined to be interviewed through a spokesman for the office, concluded his letter to Richter and Skipp by saying the review “which is currently underway, is expected to take some time.”•