Announcements Litigation

Jury Trial Victory for Blind Business Owner

Yes, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if a blind business owner comes to a government office to file her paper form, staff do need to read and write on official forms under her direction. That’s the verdict a federal jury in California delivered against Alameda County on Tuesday, April 3, 2024.

Yes, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if a blind business owner comes to a government office to file her paper form, staff do need to read and write on official forms under her direction. That’s the verdict a federal jury in California delivered against Alameda County on Tuesday, April 3, 2024.

Lisamaria’s Story

In March of 2019, Lisamaria Martinez, a blind business owner and member of the National Federation of the Blind, visited the Alameda County’s Clerk-Recorder’s Office (CRO) in order to file a government form to help her start her new small business. She had tried to fill out the electronic PDF version in advance, but it was not accessible using her screen reader. She had to have her husband help her finish printing out the form so she could file the paper copy over the counter in the CRO’s Oakland location.

Lisamaria Martinez, wearing dark glasses and standing in an office, holds a white cane and is turned towards the camera and smiling.
Lisamaria Martinez

When she handed it to the clerk for review, the clerk told her—like many others filing such forms at the CRO—that she had to make changes first before they could accept it for filing. Because Lisamaria is blind, she could not write on the correct form herself to make the required fixes. She asked for help to do so, escalating up three levels of CRO management.

She clearly and effectively put them on notice of the County’s obligations under the ADA to assist her. Everyone there that day refused to do so, saying their policies forbid them to write on any official forms regardless of the ADA.

Frustrated and humiliated, she returned home with a paper copy of the corrections the CRO wanted her to make—a paper copy she was unable to read on her own. At home, she had to hire others to help her prepare a corrected form and drive her back to the office and assist with any further corrections that might be needed because the CRO staff refused to assist. She was finally able to file her form only after hiring assistance and losing valuable business time to make a second trip back to the office.

Excuses, Excuses

Much of Alameda County’s defense revolved around excusing their actions with far-fetched legal arguments and blaming Lisamaria for not being more specific or accommodating in her request for assistance.

A jury didn’t buy the County’s excuses and blame-shifting. So, what are some takeaway lessons for the County?

No, a government office can’t excuse their violation of the ADA by blaming a disabled person for not using the exact wording that would possibly have made them reconsider their refusal—in this case, specifically asking for a new blank inaccessible paper form first instead of asking for help correcting her inaccessible paper form.

No, a blind individual should not have to return home to correct her form when a sighted person could have filed their corrected form that same day. And no, allowing a paper form to be returned by mail by a blind individual does not correct this unequal treatment. And also no, having an inaccessible PDF version of the form available online similarly does not correct this unequal treatment.

Yes, government forms are part of two-way “effective communications” and the process of filling them out and submitting them by disabled individuals does need to be “as effective as communications with others,” just like the ADA regulations covering government entities require.

Yes, if you do spend five years refusing to address accessibility failures, a jury might well find you liable to a blind individual for your violation of the ADA and hold you accountable.

A pencil sketch of Attorney Tim Elder standing at a podium facing away from the viewer
Attorney Timothy Elder argues for Lisamaria Martinez (sketch by Easton Mazrui)

Yes, many ways to make public services equitable for disabled individuals need only common-sense and easy solutions, like listening to someone and writing their words in the proper spot on a paper form. Government offices should start with “how can I make this work?” rather than a bureaucratic “no”—and when their failures are pointed out to them, should fix the problems quickly and politely rather than spending five years gaslighting someone simply seeking equitable treatment that’s been guaranteed for more than 30 years under the ADA.

Lisamaria’s Hard-Won Success

TRE Legal Practice and Undaunted Law Firm are pleased that Lisamaria has finally been vindicated in court. But it should not have taken this long.

A progressive California county like Alameda should be ashamed of its stance in this civil rights case. Well before filing her successful lawsuit, Lisamaria proposed much less costly and much less confrontational structured negotiations to the County.

If the County had taken this more collaborative path and simply agreed to alter its policies to better meet the needs of its disabled residents, this case could have been resolved for less than the cost of this verdict. Instead, the County chose to fight to keep discriminating against people like Lisamaria and incurred exponentially more legal fees.

Outcome of the Case

A pencil sketch of people sitting as a jury in a courtroom, as viewed from their right side
The jury listens to the evidence and arguments (sketch by Easton Mazrui)

The jury awarded Lisamaria $30,500 in damages for the County’s deliberately indifferent violation of the ADA and related state laws.

The court will now consider what injunctive relief may be necessary to bring the County into full compliance with the law. The court will also be asked to award attorneys’ fees and costs payable to Lisamaria’s lawyers for over 1,500 hours across five years of protracted litigation.

Fighting this case never should have been necessary. Taxpayers should be outraged at the County’s irresponsible approach to resisting equal access on such a clear case of noncompliance with the ADA and its promise of equality for disabled Americans.

About TRE Legal Practice

TRE Legal is a civil rights law firm that fights against discrimination and specializes in the rights of the blind and other disabled people to access employment, education, government programs, public accommodations, accessible technology and all other aspects of society. TRE Legal’s founding attorney, Timothy Elder, is a longstanding leader in the organized blindness movement, the National Federation of the Blind, and an avid technology enthusiast.

About Undaunted Law Firm

Undaunted Law Firm, P.C. works exclusively on behalf of individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of disability, gender, sexual orientation and/or race. In addition to litigating, Undaunted seeks proactive solutions to expand access to opportunity through education and employment.