Our client, James Handwork, is a hard of hearing man serving a 15 years-to-life sentence at Lake Erie Correctional Institution, minimum security private state prison run by Corrections Corporation of America. Last winter both of his hearing aids, which had not been replaced for many years, became completely inoperable. Without two functioning hearing aids, prison life is dangerous for Mr. Handwork and prison programs are inaccessible to him.
Pursuant to a statewide protocol, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will only replace one of Mr. Handwork’s aids. It is the state’s “established protocol” that all Ohio prisoners need to be able “to hear, at a minimum, from one ear.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires prisons to make reasonable accommodations for prisoners with disabilities, including deaf and hard- of-hearing prisoners. The ADA explicitly requires prison administrators to ensure that communication with prisoners with disabilities is as effective as communication with prisoners without disabilities. Additionally, the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids prison officials’ deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s medical needs.
On April 7, 2016, we filed a Complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. Judge Solomon Oliver was assigned to the case.
Defendants filed their Answer on May 27, 2016, and the parties completed Initial Disclosures. Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on July 28, and on September 19 we filed our cross Motion for Summary Judgment. Briefing on these cross-motions concluded on November 7.
A settlement conference was held on December 13, 2016. After discussing the cross motions for summary judgment, the Court granted the parties thirty days to attempt to reach an agreement. We filed a status report with the Court on January 12 informing the Court that settlement negotiations were ongoing, and requesting another status conference in early February if the matter was not resolved by then.
On February 7, 2017, we filed a second status report to inform the Court that settlement negotiations had stalled. On February 8, we had a telephonic status conference during which the Court granted the parties thirty more days to attempt to reach an agreement. The Court also instructed ODRC to follow up with the administrators of the prison to ensure they promptly set a date for an audiologist appointment for Mr. Handwork. The Court set that thirty-day deadline for March 16, 2017.
On March 9, 2017, Mr. Handwork was taken to an audiologist and fitted for a second hearing aid.
On March 21, we filed a third status report informing the Court that we were unable to fully resolve this case. On March 22, Defendants filed their status report. That same day the Court held a telephonic status conference that counsel for CoreCivic also attended at Defendants’ request. We were able to resolve all issues except attorneys’ fees. Defendants agreed to provide Mr. Handwork a second hearing aid on April 14, 2017, as well as to issue guidance and provide training to all staff regarding a corrected, constitutional hearing aid policy. Consequently, the Court dismissed the pending Motions for Summary Judgment as moot, without prejudice, meaning that these motions could be refiled if a final settlement were not reached. On April 15, 2017, our client finally received his second hearing aid. The Court held a telephonic status conference on April 19, during which the parties reached agreement on most of the terms to settle the case, and agreed to continue negotiations to resolve the issue of attorneys’ fees.
All parties executed a written settlement agreement which was filed along with a Notice of Stipulated Dismissal with Prejudice on June 16, 2017. The settlement agreement acknowledged that our client had received his second hearing aid, and that Defendants would provide all Ohio prisons with guidance and training that hearing aids must be issued to patient-prisoners based on individualized medical determination. Defendants will pay the ACLU of Ohio $22,000 in attorneys’ fees.