ALBANY – Denying an inmate a motorized wheelchair is discriminatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, a federal judge has ruled.
Northern District Judge Mae D’Agostino found that the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, known as DOCCS, failed to show that there were such safety risks in giving Nathaniel Wright the electric wheelchair that they outweighed his right to have the device.
“The court holds that the preponderance of credible evidence at trial established that plaintiff was denied meaningful access to benefits and services and the use of his motorized wheelchair in the DOCCS facilities would not unduly burden DOCCS,” she wrote.
Wright, 55, will complete a five-year sentence from Monroe County for first-degree sexual abuse next month. He had sought approval to use a mechanized chair since his arrival in state prison in 2012.
Wright argued that arm pain prevents him from operating a typical wheelchair effectively, and that prison aides are not always available to wheel him to meals and other prison programs. He suffered from scoliosis and cerebral palsy and a young child, and resulting deformities to his legs prevent him from standing for more than 10 seconds at a time, according to D’Agostino’s ruling.
The judge noted that while almost any item brought into a prison could be used as a weapon or in some other prohibited way, inmates across the state are given limited, supervised access to lawnmowers, power equipment and electronic devices such as lamps and typewriters.
“The introduction of plaintiff’s motorized wheelchair into DOCCS’ facilities may burden DOCCS, but not in an undue fashion,” D’Agostino wrote.
Her decision March 10 in in Wright v. New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 9:13-cv-00564, differed from her original opinion in the case. In 2015, D’Agostino ruled that the correction department’s blanket policy prohibiting disabled inmates from using mechanized wheelchairs was not discriminatory under federal laws (NYLJ, Oct. 8, 2015).
But a panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated her opinion [Wright v. Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 831 F.3d 74 (2016)] and directed the lower court to review whether denying Wright a motorized chair deprived him individually of the programs and services to which he is entitled.
D’Agostino heard testimony during a three-day bench trial in February.
In her latest ruling, she rebuked DOCCS for presenting statements by the prison system’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, David Infantino, which she said failed to meet the circuit’s mandate for an individualized assessments of Wright’s request for a wheelchair.
D’Agostino said she was giving the department a “grade of ‘F’” for Infantino’s decision, because he did not examine or interview Wright, did not review the inmate’s medical records, and did not consider the chronic arm pain that Wright complains about nor the mechanized chair Wright has sought to use.
“Despite these instructions [from the circuit], DOCCS failed to assess plaintiffs specific needs with respect to his specific motorized wheelchair,” D’Agostino wrote from Albany. “Thus, the court gives no weight to DOCCS’ assessment and resolves the issues presented upon the testimony and admissible documentary evidence.”
Wright was represented by Samuel Young and Joshua Cotter of Legal Services of Central New York in Syracuse. The agency did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
Assistant state Attorneys General Joshua McMahon and James Seaman defended the corrections department. A spokesman said it is reviewing the ruling.
D’Agostino noted that a majority of other state prison systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons allow disabled inmates to use motorized wheelchairs.