Elderly Deaf Woman Sues D.C. Housing Authority for Disability Discrimination

Public Housing Facility Insists She Answer Telephone She Can’t Hear

August 30, 2018 4:00 pm

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WASHINGTON—The American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia and the law firm of Arnold & Porter filed a lawsuit today against the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the D.C. Human Rights Act on behalf of Evelyn Arthur, a 77-year-old deaf woman living in DC public housing, and her son and primary caregiver, Robert Arthur.

DCHA policy requires all visitors to public housing to be announced by a phone call from the security desk to the resident, to ensure that the resident is home and accepts the visitor. But a deaf resident can’t hear the phone ring and therefore requires an accommodation for her disability. Both the federal ADA and the D.C. Human Rights Act require housing providers to provide reasonable accommodations for residents with disabilities.

Ms. Arthur has been living in public housing since 2014, and staff are well aware that she is deaf and that her son is her primary caregiver. He was exempt from the phone call policy and was only required to present his identification and sign in before visiting his mother. But in January 2017, DCHA rescinded the exemption, requiring Ms. Arthur to answer the phone and approve her son’s entry each time he visits. Ms. Arthur asked the property management to reinstate the exemption, but they refused.

This predictably caused problems. For example, in June 2017, Ms. Arthur called her son to tell him she was having trouble breathing. He immediately came to help her. But the DCHA security guard, Edward Traynham, refused to permit Mr. Arthur onto the property because his mother didn’t answer the phone. Ms. Arthur does have a video phone that blinks to notify her of calls, but she can see it only when she is in her bedroom, awake, and looking in the right direction.

Even when Mr. Arthur explained the emergency, the security guard continued to prohibit his entry, and also refused to check on Ms. Arthur himself. Fearing for his mother’s life, Mr. Arthur went upstairs without permission. For that purported infraction, DCHA served him with a Bar Notice, prohibiting him from entering the building for 60 days.

“My son is the only family I have in the Washington area and I rely on him to take care of me,” said plaintiff Evelyn Arthur. “I need him to be able to visit me, and I can’t always be looking at my video phone in the bedroom to see if the light is blinking. It was especially outrageous when building security wouldn’t let my son visit me after I called him to tell him I was having breathing problems. I’m filing this case to make the D.C. Housing Authority live up to its responsibilities to follow the law and treat me and all deaf residents of D.C. public housing with dignity.”

D.C. police later arrested Mr. Arthur while he was visiting his mother, for allegedly violating the bar. They brought no ASL interpreter with them, and handcuffed Mr. Arthur while he was trying to explain to his mother in sign language what was happening. They also handcuffed Ms. Arthur, preventing her from communicating and seriously injuring her shoulders and her back. The charges against Mr. Arthur were later dismissed.

“The Arthurs suffered an unconscionable series of abuses at the hands of DCHA and its property management company, only for their suffering to be compounded by this needlessly cruel treatment of an elderly woman and the son who was just trying to care for her,” said Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of ACLU-DC. “It’s such a shame when the D.C. government and its agencies provide elderly, indigent, disabled residents with bureaucratic obstacles instead of compassion.”

The lawsuit seeks damages from DCHA and its agents, including Mr. Traynham, for violations of the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the D.C. Human Rights Act, and from the District of Columbia for the police officers’ violations of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive police use of force and for assault and battery. It also seeks a court order requiring DCHA to provide reasonable accommodations for Ms. Arthur’s disability, and expunging Robert Arthur’s Bar Notices.

“The DCHA had a legal responsibility to accommodate Ms. Arthur’s disability and they failed to do so,” said Rebecca J. Michael, Counsel at Arnold & Porter. “Through this lawsuit, we expect that she and her son will be fully vindicated.”

The case, Arthur v. DCHA, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The complaint can be found here: https://www.acludc.org/en/cases/arthur-v-district-columbia-housing-authority

This press release can be found here: https://www.acludc.org/en/news/elderly-deaf-woman-sues-dc-housing-authority-disability-discrimination

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