February 6, 2001
The Honorable Ted Stevens
United States Senator
Federal Building - Box 4
101 12th Avenue
Fairbanks, Alaska 99701
Dear Senator Stevens:
This is in response to your inquiry on behalf of your constituent, xxxxxxxxxxxxxx, who contacted you about a complaint he filed with the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division. Please excuse our delay in responding.
We did receive to complaints from xxx xxxxxxx on July 12, 2000. One named the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the other named the 4th Judicial District of the Alaska state courts. Both concern xxx xxxxxxx's property tax dispute with the Borough and the alleged failure of both entities to provide effective communication to xxx xxxxxxx, who is blind.
We apologize for the delay in responding to xxx xxxxxxx. His complaints raised a number of complicated issues that have engendered a thorough review. The first is whether the Borough, as a public entity, had an obligation to provide him with documents in alternate formats when interacting with xxx xxxxxxx as a citizen. The answer is clearly "yes." Under title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), a state or local government entity must take such steps as are necessary to ensure that communication with members of the public with disabilities is as effective as communication with others, unless to do so would cause a fundamental alteration of the program, activity, or service or an undue financial or administrative burden. The Department has specifically stated that tax bills, for example, must be made available in large print or audio tape (or Braille, if necessary) for persons with vision impairments. The Americans with Disabilities Act Title II Technical Assistance Manual, II-7.1000 (1993 and 1994 Supp.)
It appears from the information provided that the Borough provided audio tapes of documents to xxx xxxxxxx until he filed suit against it. The second issue, then, is whether, once the Borough became a defendant, it had an obligation to provide its court pleadings in an accessible format. The Department has not interpreted the law to require this result.
Xxx xxxxxxx has also alleged, however, that the state court failed to communicate effectively with him in the course of adjudicating his dispute with the Borough. Under title II, access to the case files in the court clerk's office is a covered "service" to which the duty to provide effective communication attaches. It appears from the information provided that the clerk's office of the 4th Judicial District attempted to provide audio tapes of the court's written rulings and correspondence to xxx xxxxxxx the contents of the whole court record, including the submissions of the Borough, or believed that the task would have constituted an undue administrative or financial burden.
I regret to say that the Disability Rights Section cannot pursue these issues further, however, because it simply lacks the resources to do so. I can understant xxx xxxxxxx's frustration at our inability to take up his cause. I am sorry that we cannot assist every individual whose ADA rights may have been violated.
Additionally, it is unclear what could be done at this juncture to remedy the alleged ADA violation that occurred in the course of xxx xxxxxxx's state court litigation. The Department does not have the authority to review the judicial decisions of courts in individual cases. Although discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the ADA may be a basis for challenging a court's decision, that challenge must be made through the applicable judicxial appeals procedure.
The Department policy in this regard is based on federal judicial decisions, including U.S. Supreme Court precedent. See, e.g., District of Columbia Ct. or Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 476 (1982); Campbell v. Greisberger, 80 F.3d 703, 706-707(2d Cir. 1996) (federal court has no jurisdiction to hear an ADA-based challenge to a state court decision). These cases make clear that ADA challenges to state or local court decisions must be made through the state and local appellate process, ultimately including appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
We have enclosed a list of organizations in Alaska that advise and advocate on disability issues. Xxx xxxxxxx may wish to consult one of these to explore any options or bases on which to appeal the decision made with respect to his tax case.
I hope this information is useful in responding to your constituent. Please do not hesitate to contact the Department if we can be of assistance in other matters.
William R. Yeomans
Chief of Staff
Civil Rights Division