Deaf inmate won’t get compensation for alleged lack of services at DOC

 

GEORGETOWN — A deaf former inmate is not due compensation for alleged lack of services provided by the Department of Correction during three prison stays beginning in 2010, a Superior Court Judge ruled on Monday.

Earlier, the Delaware State Human Relations Commission awarded Robert Ovens undisclosed damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs regarding a complaint that the Delaware Equal Accommodations Act was violated during his incarceration at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, court papers said.

Sussex County Resident Judge T. Henley Graves found, however, that an earlier Superior Court decision determined that prisons were not a place of public accommodation and reversed the decision to award Mr. Ovens.

“A correction facility clearly does not fit within the statutory definition of a place of public accommodation [pursuant to Delaware’s Equal Accommodations Act],” Judge M. Jane Brady ruled in Short v. Delaware, which was included in the papers laying out the case before Judge Graves.

“Correction facilities are designed specifically so that those people hosed inside remain inside, and so those people outside of them are unable to gain access.”

With that established, Judge Graves noted that “The Commission erred in declining to follow the leading authority on the issue of whether a prison constitutes a place of public accommodation. …

“In this case, the Commission elected to reject not only the opinion of Delaware Courts but also, as it acknowledged, that of the majority of other state courts.”

Also, the judge determined, the Commission did not have jurisdiction to consider Mr. Ovens’ complaint, which rendered whether he was denied services at SCI moot.

Attempts to reach the State Human Relations Commission and Department of Correction on Friday were unsuccessful.

The initial complaint

Mr. Ovens initially filed his complaint with the Commission on Nov. 23, 2010. He claimed he was denied qualified interpreters for anger management classes, medical appointments, grievance hearings or other essential meetings, according to documents, along with proper telephone service and video conference capability with his criminal defense lawyer.

On March 31, 2011, the Commission dismissed the complaint, citing lack of jurisdiction, but reversed course on Jan. 13, 2012 when the Director of the Division of Human Relations said the complaint would be heard after an appeal was returned from Superior Court, papers said.

Mr. Ovens re-filed the complaint on July 6, 2012, citing the same respondents and issues as before. After a motion to dismiss was denied on Dec. 16, 2014, the Commission claimed it had jurisdiction due to a prison being a place of public accommodation, papers said, and ruled on damages.

That ruling was appealed to Superior Court on July 22, 2015, and a process of briefing began. The matter was submitted to Judge Graves on Jan. 8, 2016.

In conclusion, the judge sided with the respondents, including then-DOC Commissioner Carl C. Danberg, SCI Warden G.R. Johnson, and medical service provider administrators at SCI, documents said.

“There was no urgent reason or clear manifestation of error to justify the Commission revisiting an issue already decided by Delaware Superior Court,” Judge Graves wrote.

“The Commission’s decision to do so constituted an error or law that requires reversal. Under Delaware law, prisons are not places of public accommodation and the Commission lacked jurisdiction to entertain Owens’ complaint.”

Deputy Attorney General Stacey Cohee represented the respondents in the matter, with Community Legal Aid Society attorney Neilson Himelein representing Mr. Ovens.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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