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John TC Yeh v. United States Bureau of Prisons

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 6, 2019

JOHN TC YEH, Plaintiff
v.
UNITED STATES BUREAU OF PRISONS; HUGH J. HURWITZ, Director of the BOP; J. RAY ORMOND, Regional Director of the BOP, Northeast Region; SCOTT FINLEY, Warden of FCI Schuylkill, Defendants

          Carlson, Magistrate Judge.

          MEMORANDUM

          James M. Munley, United States District Judge.

         Before the court for disposition is Magistrate Judge Carlson's report and recommendation (hereinafter “R&R”) which proposes denying the defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings in regard to the assertion that the court lacks jurisdiction to entertain this case under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (hereinafter “RA”) and deferring the motion in regard to the argument that the case is moot. (Doc. 78). Plaintiff's action is brought under § 504 of the RA, 29 U.S.C. § 794. The matter is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         Background

         John TC Yeh, the plaintiff in the instant action, is a deaf man whose primary language is American Sign Language (hereinafter “ASL”). (Doc. 1, Complaint, ¶¶6, 8). He began serving a prison sentence on January 30, 2012 at Federal Correctional Institution Schuylkill Satellite Camp (hereinafter “FCI Schuylkill”). (Id. ¶17). FCI Schuylkill is controlled and operated by the Bureau of Prisons (hereinafter “BOP”), and the BOP Inmate Telephone Regulations allow all inmates the opportunity to contact their family and community by granting the inmates 300 minutes of telephone use per month. (Id. ¶¶12, 21-22). FCI Schuylkill's supplemental Telephone Regulations for Inmates further specifies that inmates are allowed up to five calls per day with the telephones typically being available from 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every day. (Id. ¶¶22-23).

         Because the plaintiff is deaf, however, he could not use the telephones the same way as a hearing person. (Id. ¶19). As a result, FCI Schuylkill provided the plaintiff with text-telephone services (hereinafter “TTY”), a telephone device equipped with a keyboard and a display screen. (Id. ¶¶ 26, 34). In order for the plaintiff to use the TTY, he was required to make prior arrangements with the outside party and a member of the staff. Due to the logistics of transferring the calls, outside parties who lacked the ability to hear or speak, including several of the plaintiff's family members, could not call the plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 34-35).

         As a result, the plaintiff filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (hereinafter “EEO”) to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division claiming that FCI Schuylkill violated Section 504 of the RA when it failed to provide him with an effective telecommunications device. (Id. ¶2). Section 504 of the RA is a federal law which prohibits discrimination against people with disability in programs that receive federal financial assistance. 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.

         The EEO Officer determined that the TTY FCI Schuylkill provided to the plaintiff was appropriate to accommodate his disability. (Id.) Afterwards, the plaintiff appealed the decision to an Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter “ALJ”) who sustained the EEO Officer's finding. (Id.) Next, the plaintiff sent a Letter of Exceptions to the Complaint Adjudication Officer (hereinafter “CAO”). (Id.) The CAO issued his decision on February 5, 2018, finding in favor of the plaintiff. The CAO concluded that the plaintiff's access to the TTY did not provide him with equal opportunities and that the BOP failed to show the installation of a videophone would create an undue hardship. (Id.) Thus, the CAO ruled in the plaintiff's favor and directed the prison to install a videophone. (Id.)

         About three months later, on May 3, 2018, the plaintiff filed the instant complaint alleging that the BOP had violated the RA by failing to comply with the CAO's decision and install a videophone. (Id. ¶ 2-3); (Doc. 1-1, Civil Cover Sheet at 1). On the same day, he moved for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to mandate that the defendants immediately install a videophone at FCI Schuylkill for the plaintiff. (Doc. 2, Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction at 15). As a result, Magistrate Judge Carlson issued a series of orders and held a hearing on the motion to expedite the collection of information. (Docs. 15, 20, 28, 29). Because of the information that came to light, Magistrate Judge Carlson instituted a reporting and case management system to ensure the plaintiff's requested relief was not delayed. (Docs. 34, 36, 39, 40, 41, 45, 48, 49, 50, 51).

         Then, on November 28, 2018, the plaintiff was able to make his first call using a videophone installed at FCI Schuylkill. (Doc. 54, Status Report Per the Court's Order of Nov. 27, 2018, ¶1). From November 28, 2018 to December 4, 2018, the plaintiff made forty-four phone calls, using a total of 182 minutes of call time. (Id. ¶4). On April 18, 2019, the plaintiff was placed in a halfway house, later being moved to home detention. (Doc. 77, Plaintiff's Status Update at 1). The plaintiff's projected release date is October 14, 2019. (Doc. 55, Joint Status Update, at defendant's ¶ 2). It appears that the videophone was available for the plaintiff's use at FCI Schuylkill up until he was placed in the halfway house, but the BOP has not guaranteed a videophone in the plaintiff's halfway house or any other BOP facility. (Id. at defendant's ¶¶ 5, 8, 11).

         The defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings on February 5, 2019. (Doc. 59, Motion for Judgment of the Pleadings). Both parties briefed their positions, and Magistrate Judge Carlson filed his R&R on May 15, 2019. (Docs. 63, 69, 71, 78).

         Jurisdiction

         The plaintiff alleges a violation of the RA, 29 U.S.C. § 794, claiming that the court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. (“The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.”). The defendant argues that there is no jurisdiction because the RA does not provide a cause of action here. This issue is discussed more fully below.

         Legal ...


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