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Gonzalvo v. State

United States District Court, N.D. New York

January 7, 2015

RUBEN GONZALVO, Plaintiff,
v.
THE STATE OF NEW YORK, Defendant.

RUBEN GONZALVO, Pro Se Woodbourne Correctional Facility Woodbourne, NY, for Plaintiff.

ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN, New York State Attorney General, Albany, NY, ADRIENNE J. KERWIN, ESQ., Assistant Attorney General, for Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

DAVID E. PEEBLES, Magistrate Judge.

Pro se plaintiff Ruben Gonzalvo, a New York State prison inmate who is hearing impaired, has commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ("section 504"), 29 U.S.C. § 794, alleging that prison officials have discriminated against him based upon his disability. Plaintiff's claims stem from the refusal of corrections officials to allow him to participate in sign language classes given at the prison facility in which he was confined at the relevant times.

Now that discovery in the action is closed, the defendant, the State of New York, has moved for the entry of summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint. In its motion, the State argues that no reasonable factfinder could conclude plaintiff was discriminated against on the basis of disability when he was denied access to the sign language classes. Having carefully reviewed the record now before the court, I recommend that defendant's motion be denied.

I. BACKGROUND[1]

Plaintiff is a prison inmate currently in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"). See generally Dkt. Nos. 1, 10. Although he is now confined elsewhere, plaintiff's claims in this action arise from his incarceration in the Eastern Correctional Facility ("Eastern"), located in Napanock, New York.[2] See generally Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiff is deaf in his right ear and has reduced hearing in his left. Dkt. No. 62 at 2.

According to Eve Simmons, a DOCCS Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Eastern offers "a sign language class as an interpreter training program for anyone suitable to become an interpreter." Dkt. No. 54-3 at 1. In or about February or March 2011, plaintiff requested permission to participate in the class. Dkt. No. 1 at 12-13, 17, 26; Dkt. No. 62 at 2. Although plaintiff requested permission to participate in the class out of a desire to learn sign language, there is no evidence to suggest that he had any intention of becoming an interpreter. Dkt. No. 62 at 3, 27.

On March 2, 2011, Simmons denied plaintiff's request to participate in the sign language class, stating that the DOCCS is "not mandated to provide [American Sign Language] classes to deaf hard of hearing." Dkt. No. 1 at 26; Dkt. No. 62 at 2. In its memorandum of law in support of its pending motion, however, defendant contends that plaintiff was denied access to the class "because he does not have a General Education Diploma ('GED')." Dkt. No. 54-8 at 6. In support of this proposition, defendant cites Simmons' declaration, in which she states that, because the class "involves a fair amount of finger spelling of English words that may not have an equivalent sign, ... a GED is one of the basic requirements to participate in the class." Id. Absent from Simmons' declaration, however, is any statement suggesting that plaintiff's request to participate was denied because he does not have a GED.

Although there is currently no alternative at Eastern for learning sign language aside from the interpreter training classes, Simmons states that the prospect of providing classes to hearing impaired inmates wishing to learn sign language, but not to train as interpreters, has been discussed at the facility. Dkt. No. 54-3 at 2.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff's complaint in this action was filed on August 3, 2011, and was accompanied by an application for leave to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP"). Dkt. No. 1. While Gonzalvo's complaint named five other plaintiffs, those additional plaintiffs were dismissed in a decision and order issued on May 4, 2012, by Senior District Judge Norman A. Mordue. Dkt. No. 11. Plaintiff's complaint asserts ADA and section 504 claims against five defendants, including W. Brown, the Superintendent at Eastern; Catherine M. Jacobsen, the Acting Deputy Commissioner for Program Services for the DOCCS; Eve Simmons, a Vocational Rehabilitation Supervisor at Eastern; Karen Bellamy, the Director of the DOCCS Inmate Grievance Program; Mr. Williams, an S.D. U.Supervisor at Eastern; and Mr. Gibson, a Sign Language Interpreter at Eastern. Dkt. No. 1 at 3-4. All of those defendants, with the exception of Williams, were dismissed as a result of a decision and order issued by Judge Mordue on February 28, 2012. Dkt. No. 5. Defendant Williams was later dismissed from the action after the court learned that he was deceased, and the State of New York was substituted as the sole named defendant on September 19, 2012. Dkt. No. 22.

On April 14, 2014, following the close of discovery, defendant moved for the entry of summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint, arguing that no reasonable factfinder could conclude plaintiff was denied access to sign language classes based upon his hearing impairment. Dkt. No. 54-8 at 6. Defendant's motion, to which plaintiff has now responded, Dkt. No. 62, is now ripe for determination and has been referred to me for the issuance of a report and recommendation, ...


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