Clarkson v. Coughlin, 91 Civ. 1972 (RWS) (S.D.N.Y.)

Nature of Claims: This class action challenges the failure to accommodate the disabilities of deaf and hard of hearing prisoners in the state prison system. It was resolved in the plaintiffs’ favor by a grant of summary judgment, followed by a consent judgment spelling out measures to provide proper accommodations for class members, which are also incorporated into a NYSDOCS policy directive. It was initially filed by the Civil Division; PRP has assumed responsibility for post-judgment monitoring and enforcement.

Current status: PRP continues to monitor compliance and to intervene on behalf of class members who complain of violations of the consent judgment. The consent judgment establishes an ombudsperson responsible for handling requests by class members for accommodations. Resolving a dispute that arose when defendants asserted that they would no longer respond to complaints to the ombudsperson if the prisoner had not previously exhausted the procedure in the directive, the Court ruled on October 23, 2003, that in accordance with the judgment, class members must submit their complaints to the ombudsperson, regarding violations of the judgment. On March 10, 2006, the Court ruled that the defendants must provide to class members notice of the procedure required by the October 2003 order, and that class members wishing to submit contempt motions do not have to exhaust any remedies other than submitting complaints to the ombudsperson.

PRP also moved to intervene in a separate action filed by a class member to request reconsideration of the court’s determination that the prisoner plaintiff could not recover damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act because they are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. On March 1, 2006, the court granted the motion to intervene and to reconsider, holding that Clarkson class members have a sufficient interest in the question of availability of damages under the ADA to support intervention, and that the Supreme Court’s intervening decision in Tennessee v. Lane allowed the plaintiff to seek damages, contrary to the court’s prior ruling.

In an individual, pro se action originating in the Western District of New York and then transferred to the Southern District, the Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to convert the amended complaint to a motion for contempt of the Clarkson judgment and also granted a motion for appointment of counsel. Myers v. Andzel, 2008 WL 4279524 (S.D.N.Y. 2008). The plaintiff is now represented by pro bono counsel whom Legal Aid helped recruit.

Persons Affected: All deaf and hard of hearing prisoners in the state prisons, whom we estimate as presently numbering between 100 and 200.

Reported decisions: Clarkson v. Coughlin, 783 F.Supp. 789 (S.D.N.Y. 1992) (denying class certification without prejudice); Clarkson v. Coughlin, 145 F.R.D. 339 (S.D.N.Y. 1993) (certifying class); Clarkson v. Coughlin, 898 F.Supp. 1019 (S.D.N.Y. 1995) (granting plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, finding violation of disability statutes and Constitution); Clarkson v. Coughlin, 2006 WL 587345 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (requiring notice to class of procedure for submission of complaints to ombudsperson prior to filing motions for contempt of Clarkson judgment); Degrafinreid v. Ricks, 417 F.Supp.2d 403 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (granting intervention to class counsel in individual class member’s case, granting reconsideration, reversing prior decision barring damages for ADA claim).