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Public Justice Center Files Fourth Circuit Brief in Disability Discrimination Case

December 23, 2010: On a cold January evening, several deputies from the Frederick County Sheriff’s office arrived at the home of Mr. Bobby Seremeth and his four children to investigate what turned out to be false allegations of child abuse made by his former wife. Despite knowing that Mr. Seremeth, his children, and his visiting parents are all deaf, the deputies did not summon a qualified interpreter or pursue other reasonable strategies to effectively communicate with the family. Instead, they handcuffed and held Mr. Seremeth outside for close to an hour, never explaining why they were there or permitting Mr. Seremeth to communicate. After a police officer’s failed attempt to interpret using amateur sign language skills, the deputies relied on Mr. Seremeth’s father – by no means an impartial participant – to facilitate questioning through his limited ability to lip-read. The deputies eventually left without making an arrest, leaving Mr. Seremeth and his family traumatized and wondering why they had come.

In a suit filed in the Federal District Court for the District of Maryland, Seremeth v. Board of County Commissioners et al, Mr. Seremeth asserted claims against the Sheriff, a deputy, and county governing board under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Rehabilitation Act, and other federal and state laws. The District Court ruled against Mr. Seremeth on his ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims on the grounds that those statutes, which prohibit disability-based discrimination, do not cover detentions, investigations, and arrests by law enforcement. Mr. Seremeth is appealing this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Appeal No. 10-1711), where he is represented by Former Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Monisha Cherayil of the Public Justice Center.

On December 23, 2010, the Public Justice Center filed Mr. Seremeth’s opening brief, which argued that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act do apply to law enforcement activities such as arrest, detention, and investigation, and that the District Court erred in deciding otherwise. Furthermore, the brief asserted, these statutes require the Frederick County Sheriff and his deputies to reasonably accommodate deaf individuals by providing them with the services of a qualified sign language interpreter, limiting the use of handcuffs to permit written or sign language exchanges, or taking other action to ensure that they are not needlessly deprived of effective communication, as were Mr. Seremeth and his family members. A decision by the Fourth Circuit accepting the PJC’s position would have a significant positive impact on the disability community at large by ensuring that, in Maryland and surrounding states, individuals with disabilities enjoy the same rights and opportunities as individuals without disabilities when encountering law enforcement.

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