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ADA Lawsuit Against Florida Legislature Can Be Heard, Court Says

11th Circuit Court of appeals building
U.S. Federal Court of Appeal
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is in Atlanta.

A federal appeals court Friday cleared the way for a lawsuit that alleges the Florida House and Senate have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing closed captioning on online videos of legislative meetings.

The ruling by a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was a victory for the National Association of the Deaf and South Florida resident Eddie Sierra in the lawsuit filed in 2018. The appeals court upheld a district judge’s refusal to dismiss the case against the House, Senate and Florida State University, which owns the public-broadcasting station WFSU-TV.

The lawsuit alleges that a lack of closed captioning prevented Sierra and other deaf people from being able to follow legislative proceedings. The state contended, in part, that the lawsuit should be dismissed because of sovereign immunity, which generally shields states from being sued for damages in federal courts.

The appeals court upheld a decision by U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro that said sovereign immunity did not apply in the case.

“The district court agreed that the ability to participate in the democratic process is a fundamental right, and Congress validly abrogated defendants’ (the state’s) immunity for claims of discrimination with respect to that right under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act),” said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Beverly Martin and fully joined by Judge William Traxler.

“The district court held, beyond that, that even if the right to participate in the democratic process were not fundamental, Congress validly abrogated defendants’ immunity for such claims of discrimination under the ADA.”

Judge Gerald Tjoflat agreed with Martin and Traxler on the sovereign-immunity issue but dissented on part of the ruling that dealt with a federal law known as the Rehabilitation Act. Tjoflat said that issue should be sent back to the district judge for further explanation.

The House and Senate livestream meetings on their websites and have archives of videos. WFSU operates The Florida Channel, which provides televised and livestreamed coverage that has closed captioning.

The Florida Channel also has videos of legislative proceedings on its website that are not closed-captioned, with those videos also appearing on the House and Senate websites, according to documents in the lawsuit.

In briefs filed at the Atlanta-based appeals court, lawyers for the Legislature and Florida State University pointed to other material and ways to gain information about legislative proceedings.

“(This) case, where the asserted harm is a lack of access to the text of legislative proceedings, does not involve such a grave harm or vital societal interest that it should be treated as effectively implicating a fundamental right,” a state brief said.

“And the relative unimportance of the inaccessible text here is underscored by the online availability of the captioned 24/7 programming feed as well as voluminous written legislative materials, including proposed legislation, amendments, committee meeting agendas, vote tallies, and staff analyses of proposed legislation --- not to mention press coverage of legislative proceedings ---all of which allow plaintiffs to ‘meaningfully participate in the democratic process.’ After all, no one would seriously contend that the millions of Floridians who do not watch legislative proceedings are not ‘meaningfully participating in the democratic process’ or even that they are uninformed voters.

But the lawsuit seeks an injunction that would require the state to take steps to make the audio and video content more accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“Unless defendants are required to eliminate the communication barriers at issue and to change their policies so that communication barriers do not reoccur on defendants’ website, plaintiffs will continue to be denied meaningful access to the live and archived audio/video content on defendants’ websites and defendants’ other social media including YouTube and Facebook pages,” the lawsuit said.