U.S. 5th Circuit holds disabled individual did not request accommodation from officers performing field sobriety test so cannot sue for disability discrimination

Windham v. Harris County 16-20686 (5th Cir. November 13, 2017)

This is a §1983 suit where the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the County and Deputy Sheriff’s summary judgment motion.

Windham was arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired after he rear-ended another car. The other vehicle’s driver reported Windham appeared to be under the influence of some form of drug or alcohol. The deputy sheriff observed Windham’s eyes were bloodshot, that he appeared confused, and that he had not been aware that he had hit another car. Windham explained that he had taken a prescription painkiller at 3:00 a.m. and had been awake for twenty hours due to his condition of cervical stenosis (which causes his head to dip forward abnormally). He presented the deputy with a doctor’s note listing the condition. The deputy subjected Windham to a field  gaze nystagmus test (eye tracking). The deputy called a certified drug recognition expert, Deputy Matthew Dunn, to gauge Windham’s impairment. Dunn concluded that Windham was insufficiently impaired to justify arrest and released him. The entire encounter lasted 90 minutes. Windham sued Deputy Pasket, Dunn, and the County. The trial court granted all the Defendants’ summary judgment motions. Dunn appealed.

This is actually a Title II – ADA claim along with a §1983/4th Amendment seizure claim. In order to satisfy a Title II claim, Windham has to establish he was discriminated against “by reason of his disability.”  Windham attempts to satisfy the third prong on a theory of “failure to accommodate” which is expressly codified in Title I, not Title II. Under Title II, courts have recognized claims in the specific context of police officers who fail reasonably to accommodate the known limitations of disabled persons they detain. However, a critical component of a Title II claim for failure to accommodate is proof  “the disability and its consequential limitations were known by the [entity providing public services].”  Mere knowledge of the disability is not enough; the service provider must also have understood “the limitations [the plaintiff] experienced . . . as a result of that disability.” Otherwise, it would be impossible for the provider to ascertain whether an accommodation is needed at all, much less identify an accommodation that would be reasonable under the circumstances.  The court commented that it has not directly addressed what level of knowledge is required, however, in this case, Windham never directly requested an accommodation. His vague, generalized references as to whether he could do the test “… does not constitute the kind of clear and definite request for accommodations that would trigger the duty to accommodate under the ADA.”  Further, Windhem did not provide any evidence the deputies knew or should have known that Windham’s neck condition was such that looking straight ahead would injure him, and that the deputies  knew or should have known what accommodation he needed.  Knowledge of a disability is different from knowledge of the resulting limitation. And it certainly is different from knowledge of the necessary accommodation. The doctor’s note could not reasonably be found to have apprised the officers of Windham’s limitation or a necessary accommodation. His disability was not “open, obvious, and apparent” and neither was the accommodation which would have to be provided.

As to the 4th Amendment search, an investigative stop needs only reasonable suspicion. An arrest, on the other hand, demands the greater showing of probable cause. For reasonable suspicion the only relevant information is the information that was available to the officers at the time.

If you want to read the opinion, click here. The panel consists of Justices Smith, Owen and Higginson. Justice Higginson delivered opinion of the court.

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