By Mike Stephens

On Thursday, February 23, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in Heyer v. U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Appellant, Thomas Heyer, brought several claims against the United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for failing to accommodate his deafness. After reviewing the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of BOP, the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded the order.

Facts and Procedural History

After Heyer’s initial sentence expired, he remained in civil custody after being deemed “sexually dangerous to others.” He was born deaf and his native language is American Sign Language (ASL) . Given the dramatic differences between ASL and English, Heyer is unable to communicate effectively in English. Since his arrival at the prison, Heyer has repeatedly requested ASL interpreters. His inability to communicate with others has created several problems. Heyer is unable to communicate with the mental health officials responsible for determining the duration of his stay in prison. Heyer has suffered several strokes at the prison and has not been provided a way to communicate with medical personnel. He has also does not attend religious services and is unable to access goods sold because there are no translators. Additionally, Heyer has repeatedly been late or missed scheduled activities because he cannot hear announcements and does not have a vibrating watch or bed.

In 2011, Heyer filed suit against BOP asserting multiple violations of his First and Fifth Amendment rights. His Fifth Amendment claims were based on BOP’s failure to provide translators that would allow him to communicate with the medical and mental health professionals. Furthermore, the complaint alleged Heyer’s First Amendment rights had been violated by BOP’s refusal to provide a videophone and its failure to have translators present at the religious services. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of BOP.

Heyer’s Fifth Amendment Claims

Heyer alleges that BOP’s repeated failure to accommodate his deafness violates his Fifth Amendment rights because it rises to the level of “deliberate indifference.” While this standard is most often used in claims arising under the Eighth Amendment, the Fourth Circuit applied it to Heyer’s Fifth Amendment claims. The standard has two components: the plaintiff must show that he has serious medical needs, an objective standard, and that the defendant acted with deliberate indifference to those needs, a subjective standard. Heyer did not claim his deafness constituted a “serious medical need.” Rather, Heyer’s complaint alleged that BOP’s failure to provide interpreters for his interaction with medical professionals has resulted in inadequate treatment for his medical needs. BOP argued that because Heyer had suffered any actual injury, the standard had not been violated.

The Fourth Circuit agreed and held that Heyer had presented enough evidence to satisfy the deliberate indifference standard. The Court rejected the BOP’s argument, holding that BOP’s actions had exposed Heyer to a substantial risk of serious harm. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that Heyer’s continued seizures, coupled with his inability to communicate with the medical staff, was sufficient to satisfy the object prong.

The Fourth Circuit held that Heyer satisfied the subjective prong as well. BOP argued that Heyer presented no evidence showing BOP knew that the failure to provide translators created a serious risk to his health. Additionally, BOP argued that providing Heyer with assistance from other inmates constituted constitutionally adequate treatment. Again, the Fourth Circuit rejected BOP’s argument. Given BOP’s awareness of Heyer’s deafness, the Court reasoned that BOP was well aware that the failure to provide translators would create for ineffective medical treatment. This awareness, the Court reasoned, was sufficient for a factfinder to conclude the BOP was deliberately indifferent.

First Amendment Claims

Heyer’s alleged that the refusal to provide a videophone violated his First Amendment right to communicate with others outside of the prison. BOP countered that the refusal was merely an unwillingness to provide Heyer with his preferred method of communication. As such, BOP argued that it did not “impinge” on Heyer’s constitutional rights because Heyer could use the TTY devices at the prison.

The Fourth Circuit rejected BOP’s argument. TTY devices require the users to be proficient in English. Given that Heyer could not communicate in English, the Court reasoned that requiring Heyer to use TTY devices to communicate impinged on his First Amendment rights. The Court then proceeded to determine whether requiring Heyer to use the TTY devices was reasonably related to the penological interests of the prison. The Court applied the four factor test as required by Turner v. Safley. Ultimately, the Court found that the factors created issues of fact to be decided at trial. First, there was a factual dispute as to whether the TTY devices provided Heyer an effective means of communication. Second, a question of fact arose as to whether BOP would have to install new IT infrastructure to maintain prison safety. Lastly, the Court found a factual dispute as to whether there were alternative communicative devices available for use by Heyer. Ultimately, given the disputed facts, the Fourth Circuit found the district court erred in granting BOP’s motion for summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit also found a dispute of fact existed as to whether BOP had unreasonably restricted Heyer’s access to the TTY devices.

Lastly, Heyer alleged that the refusal to provide interpreters at the religious services violated his First Amendment rights. The district court dismissed these claims, finding that they were moot given BOP had provided interpreters to Heyer for other occasions. The BOP argued that a 2014 affidavit from the prison chaplain showed that BOP would provide an interpreter if necessary.

The Fourth Circuit also rejected this argument. The Court found that the affidavit was merely a “mid-litigation change of course” given the BOP had failed to provide an interpreter to Heyer for a religious service. The Court reasoned that an assurance to provide an interpreter in the future did not make Heyer’s claim moot.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Heyer’s First and Fifth Amendment claims. The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

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