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Payne v. United States Marshals Service

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

July 20, 2018




         Dionell Payne, a state prisoner who is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, has filed a pro se lawsuit contending that the defendants violated federal disability laws by failing to provide reasonable accommodations for him during a civil trial held at the federal courthouse in Chicago. The defendants, the United States Marshals Service (USMS) and the General Services Administration (GSA), have moved for summary judgment.


         Payne is paralyzed from the neck down and uses a wheelchair. For several days in November 2014, he was transported from the Cook County jail to the federal courthouse for a civil trial that was held before the undersigned judge.[1] To appear in the federal courtroom, Payne had to complete a trip with multiple steps, several of which are at issue here. First, state officers transported Payne from the Cook County jail to the federal courthouse. Next, employees of USMS moved Payne into an elevator. Payne contends that the only way he could fit into the elevator cabin was to remove the leg rests on his wheelchair. He further alleges that the USMS employees "squished" him into the elevator in an uncomfortable manner. D.E. 75, Def.'s Ex. 1 at 16 (Payne Dep.).

         From there, the elevator took Payne to the twenty-fourth floor of the federal courthouse, where holding cells are located. Payne contends that the accommodations provided to change into courtroom clothing were inadequate. He alleges that he was told to change himself as best he could, despite the absence of the fixtures-rails and grips that he could use to reposition himself-that disability laws require. Without these accommodations, it was an extremely difficult process to change his clothing: he alleges that, as a result of these inadequate accommodations, he fell and injured himself, causing spasms and neck pain.

         Payne contends that he complained about the accommodations to a deputy U.S. Marshal and to an attorney (who may have been employed by the U.S. Attorney's Office) but was never told how to file a grievance. Payne further contends that, while he was at the courthouse, he never saw any information posted regarding a grievance procedure. He subsequently filed a grievance through the Cook County jail administrative procedures. He then filed the present pro se lawsuit.

         This case was originally assigned to Judge Charles P. Kocoras. On initial review, Judge Kocoras found that Payne had stated a claim against USMS and the GSA under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. The defendants moved to dismiss Payne's claim, arguing that he failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. Judge Kocoras denied the motion, concluding that the defendants had failed to show Payne-who was a county prisoner, not a federal prisoner-was ever made aware of USMS or GSA procedures for filing a grievance regarding accommodations. Next, the defendants moved to limit the relief available to Payne to injunctive relief only, relying upon Lane v. Pena, 518 U.S. 187 (1996), in which the Supreme Court held that Congress had not waived sovereign immunity for monetary damages for suits under the Rehabilitation Act. Id. at 197. Judge Kocoras granted the motion, leaving Payne with only a claim for injunctive relief. The defendants have now moved for summary judgment.


         Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party shows it is entitled to relief as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Austin v. Walgreen Co., 885 F.3d 1085, 1088 (7th Cir. 2018). The defendants present three reasons for summary judgment on Payne's Rehabilitation Act claim. Under the statute, no disabled individual, by reason of his or her disability, may "be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to" discrimination "under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency." 29 U.S.C. § 794(a).

         I. Mootness

         First, the defendants argue that summary judgment is appropriate because the "[d]efendants have voluntarily undertaken all the relief that Payne could receive under the Rehabilitation Act[.]" Mem. in Supp. of Summ. J. at 6. To determine if the government's purported changes moot Payne's case, the Court asks "whether there has been complete discontinuance, whether effects continue after discontinuance, and whether there is any other reason that justifies decision and relief." Magnuson v. City of Hickory Hills, 933 F.2d 562, 565 (7th Cir. 1991) (quoting C. Wright, A. Miller, & E. Cooper, Fed. Prac. & Proc.: Jurisdiction 2d § 3533.6, at 350)). But it is "well established" that a defendant's "voluntary cessation" of allegedly illegal conduct will generally not moot the plaintiff's claim. Ragsdale v. Turnock, 841 F.2d 1358, 1364 (7th Cir. 1988).

         The defendants point to two major changes in accommodations for disabled prisoners. First, the defendants note that the USMS adopted a new protocol to accommodate the transport of prisoners in wheelchairs. The defendants do not explain, however, how the new protocol would avoid the failures that Payne alleges. Second, the defendants present a shifting story regarding renovations to the twenty-fourth floor. The defendants first stated they were in the process of negotiating a contract to renovate the particular holding cell that Payne challenged. The renovations would include "(1) replacement of the cell door, including modifications to the opening, to provide a 42" opening clearance; (2) installation of an ADA/ABA complaint toilet and sink to replace current fixtures; (3) replacement and relocation of the privacy screen to provide a 60" turning radius; and (4) installation of grab doors at the toilet." Defs.' LR 56.1 Stmt. of Facts ¶ 32. In a later filing, however, the defendants stated that the entire twenty-fourth floor is to be renovated in a project that is anticipated to conclude in two to three years. Supp. to Defs.' LR 56.1 Stmt. of Facts ¶¶ 42, 45. The supplemental filing does not provide comparable details on what will be changed in the renovated cells.

         None of these changes or anticipated changes renders Payne's claim moot. The Court first notes that the defendants have failed to explain in any detail how the changes address the particular shortcomings that Payne has identified. Moreover, the record suggests that none of the changes has yet been instituted: the new protocol has not yet been applied to any prisoners, and the proposed renovations of the holding cell are at least two years from completion. Thus the defendants' evidence falls far short of demonstrating "complete discontinuance" of the practices at issue. The defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on mootness grounds.

         II. ...

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