Court Decisions & Disability Issues Briefs
A project of the Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University

Seremeth v. Board of County Commissioners of Frederick County

United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals
2012 WL 764469
March 12, 2012

Facts of the Case

On January 13, 2008, Robert Seremeth was arrested after Dawn Rood called the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department alleging that she saw him hit their daughter while she was talking to the daughter on a videophone. Rood informed the 9-1-1 operator that the family was deaf and that there were no weapons in the house. The dispatcher advised the deputies en route to Seremeth’s residence that the family was deaf, and contacted police officer Meg Ryan with the Frederick City Police Department who was learning American Sign Language (“ASL”), to assist.

When the deputies arrived at Seremeth’s residence, they shined flashlights into the house to gain the family’s attention. Seremeth opened the door, and the deputies drew their weapons with one aimed at Seremeth. Deputy Rohrer using hand motions ordered Seremeth to drop the remote control he was holding, and then handcuffed his wrists behind his back. The deputies made Seremeth kneel outside on a cement walkway. This prevented Seremeth from writing notes, signing, or asking why he was being detained. Seremeth attempted to communicate vocally with the officers and they responded by placing their fingers in front of their lips to direct him to be silent. He remained outside without shoes or a coat in handcuffs for 30-45 minutes. During this time, an officer gave him a note informing him that the situation would be explained to him and that an interpreter was being called.

The sheriff’s office had access to qualified interpreter services by contract with Maryland Interpreting Services, which provides an emergency interpreter within one hour of a request. Despite this fact, the officers woke Seremeth’s children and interviewed them without a qualified interpreter. When Seremeth was brought inside, his father, who can read lips and speak “understandably,” began to interpret. When Ryan arrived she attempted to interpret using her ASL course book, but was unsuccessful because of her lack of proficiency. The deputies determined that no abuse had taken place and they left.

On January 12, 2009, Seremeth filed suit against Deputy Sheriff Rohrer, Sheriff Jenkins, and the Board of County Commissioners of Frederick County alleging violations of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA for failing to provide him with auxiliary aids to communicate during their January 13 investigation. The District Court ruled in favor of the defendants, holding that the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act do not apply to police investigations and detentions, and that even if the laws did apply, defendants were not required to provide auxiliary aids and services as a reasonable accommodation.

Issues of the Case

  1. Do the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act apply to police investigations and detentions?
  2. If the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act apply to police investigations and detentions, do they require the provision of auxiliary aids and services as a reasonable accommodation for a suspect who is deaf?

Arguments & Analysis

1. Do the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act apply to police investigations and detentions?

The ADA requires public entities to make reasonable accommodations to known physical or mental limitations of a qualified individual with a disability. The Rehabilitation Act requires reasonable modifications. The standards for determining whether the ADA and Rehabilitation Act apply are the same in the Fourth Circuit. Under each, a plaintiff must prove that he or she is a qualified individual with a disability and was subject to discrimination because of his or her disability. Here, the Fourth Circuit acknowledged that Seremeth both has a disability and is a qualified individual. Moreover, by not being permitted a means to communicate with investigating officers and to be informed of the allegations against him, Seremeth was denied the benefit of effective communication.

2. Do the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act require the provision of auxiliary aids and services as a reasonable accommodation to a suspect who is deaf?

Under the ADA, a public entity must “furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to afford individuals with disabilities ... an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, a service, program, or activity of a public entity.” Auxiliary aids and services may include qualified interpreters and the exchange of written notes. Seremeth argued that he was denied a reasonable accommodation because the deputies did not alter their standard domestic violence protocol to allow him to write notes to communicate effectively and because they did not provide a qualified interpreter. The defendants argued that they were entitled to an “exigent circumstances” exception, whereby providing accommodations or deviating from a standard protocol while investigating a domestic violence complaint would be dangerous and unreasonable.

This is the first time the Fourth Circuit has considered the application of the exigent circumstances exception in an ADA case. . The Fifth Circuit held in Hainze v. Richards (2000) that an exigent circumstances exception to the ADA does exist. The Eleventh Circuit held in Bircoll v. Miami-Dade County (2007) that while there is no exigent circumstances exception to the ADA, exigent circumstances should be considered in determining the reasonableness of requested accommodations.

Adopting the Eleventh Circuit’s approach, the Court stated that the determination of what is a reasonable accommodation during a police investigation depends on the circumstances of the individual case. Here, the Court stated that the exigency justified keeping Seremeth handcuffed behind his back in accordance with the standard procedure for dangerous situations. Because of the dangerous nature of responding to domestic violence calls, altering the standard protocol would be an unreasonable accommodation. The Court held that the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA did not require the provision of auxiliary aids as a reasonable accommodation for Seremeth because of the “exigencies inherent in responding to a domestic violence situation.”

Ruling

Police investigations are subject to the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, but because of the exigent circumstances involved in a suspected domestic violence situation, which are known to be dangerous situations for police responders, the accommodations provided in this case were reasonable under the ADA and no auxiliary aids were required.

Policy & Practice

Courts generally give deference to police officers in exigent circumstances involving the risk of injury. In the Fourth Circuit, police investigations and detentions are covered by the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. Exigent circumstances will be factored in when determining whether a requested accommodation is reasonable. Domestic disputes are not likely to be an area in which plaintiffs are afforded many accommodations by law enforcement if they require a modification to an established safety protocol.

Disclaimer:

These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time.  In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.

Southeast ADA Center

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