The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that it does not have jurisdiction to take up a case lodged by a deaf litigant against Camden and its municipal court for not providing an American Sign Language interpreter for his court appearances.
Circuit Judges Thomas I. Vanaskie, Marjorie Rendell and D. Michael Fisher held that because the underlying litigation was not totally resolved, the court could not weigh in on Camden’s request to overturn U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler’s granting of partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiff Miguel Perez and Kugler’s decision not to consider the defendants’ request for judicial immunity.
“The district court’s statement that judicial immunity only bars suit against a judicial officer is not an appealable collateral order,” Fisher wrote in the court’s opinion. “Just as municipalities cannot assert qualified immunity defenses as a means of gaining review of adverse denials of summary judgment, neither can Camden assert a judicial immunity defense to appeal this district court decision under the collateral order doctrine.”
According to documents, Perez appeared in the municipal court numerous times after being summoned in connection with failing to complete a program in which he was ordered to participate by the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center (IDRC). Perez claimed at times he confusedly waited in court for hours.
Perez claimed he was initially unable to complete the IDRC course because there, too, he was not provided an interpreter.
Camden Municipal Court Judge Steven Burkett once communicated with Perez via writing on a piece of paper, and noted on the record that Perez was able to understand the proceedings on the one occasion he was provided interpreters, according to the documents.
Perez eventually completed the course, with the help of an attorney, though the defendants contended that he rejected accommodations offered to him by the IDRC along the way.
He filed the suit in December 2014, naming the court and the city, and citing to Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which applies to public entities.
The defendants moved for summary judgment; Perez moved for partial summary judgment on liability.
In a decision last December, Kugler, sitting in Camden, largely sided with Perez, granting summary judgment on liability on his claims lodged under the ADA, the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the state Law Against Discrimination.
“It is undisputed that plaintiff is profoundly deaf, cannot lip read, and reads written material at a second-grade level; no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the exchange of written notes would afford plaintiff meaningful access to court proceedings,” Kugler wrote at the time.
The defendants’ attempt to shift the blame for the courtroom difficulties to Perez himself, for failing to complete the IDRC program in the first place, were unsuccessful.
Courtroom access is a basic right, said Kugler, who was “aware of no authority restricting the right based on a litigant’s culpability.”
“Such a holding would indeed contradict the fundamental purpose of guaranteeing access to the courts,” he said.
Timothy J. Galanaugh of the Camden City Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Perez’s lawyer, Clara R. Smit.