Jury Rules In Favor Of Former Enfield School Board Member In Lawsuit
Jury Rules In Favor Of Former Enfield School Board Member In Lawsuit

Jury Rules In Favor Of Former Enfield School Board Member In Lawsuit

ENFIELD, CT — A former member of the Enfield Board of Education who sued the town over allegations she was not provided requested aids and services needed to serve equally as an autistic and deaf board member won her case before a federal jury last week.

Sarah Hernandez, one of the first openly autistic people to run for, and be elected to, public office in Connecticut, filed a lawsuit against the school board, the town of Enfield and then-board chairman Walter Kruzel in late 2019, claiming discrimination in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Hernandez was elected to the school board in 2017, running for a seat because she wanted to “show up and be a voice for people with autism in the decision-making process,” she said upon filing the suit.

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She has difficulty hearing and understanding telephone conversations and in-person conversations unless she gets written materials, can see the speakers and can take notes. She asked the board to communicate with her between meetings in writing, such as by email and text, and to provide written materials and an erasable white board for note-taking, according to the lawsuit.

Although the board agreed to those accommodations, Kruzel and other board officials refused to follow through, repeatedly insisting on communicating by telephone between meetings and refusing to provide written information or a white board for executive sessions. Her requests were often met with open hostility and anger, she claimed.

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The discrimination culminated in an executive session in June 2019, where the board failed to provide Hernandez with written information and, through its attorney, formally denied her requests for accommodations.

Last Thursday, a federal jury in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport sided with Hernandez, finding the board and the town discriminated against her in violation of Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for failing to provide her with basic accommodations needed to equally participate as a member of the board.

“All people deserve equity in access to serve in government and have laws, policies, and
procedures created of the people, by the people, for the people,” Hernandez said following the jury’s decision. “This includes the disability community, and especially multiply marginalized intersections such as nonspeakers and people of color. Protecting the disability community is a moral imperative. Communication and accommodation rights are protected by the ADA, and it
was my literal privilege to step to the line and affirm those protections.”

Anthony May, a partner in Brown, Goldstein & Levy, which represented Hernandez, said in a written statement, “At every step of the way, the defendants have fought against Ms. Hernandez, who was simply asking to serve on the board in the same capacity as her peers; to do the job for
which she was elected. In reaching its decision, the jury sent the message that people with disabilities have the right to participate equally in government, and that they have the right to have their voices heard.”

Disability Rights Connecticut supervising attorney Kasey Considine said, “DRCT is so very happy for Ms. Hernandez. Ms. Hernandez was elected by the voters and spent over six years fighting for equal access to represent her constituents. In those years, she withstood a challenge to her rights as a disabled person, she persisted, and she persevered. Hopefully, the jury’s verdict in Ms. Hernandez’s case serves as an example for other public offices to accommodate elected officials with disabilities.”

While the jury’s verdict established she was discriminated against and denied equal access to the benefits of the board’s services, programs and activities, it did not order compensatory damages against the town. Instead, Hernandez was awarded $10 in nominal damages.

The original complaint may be read here, and the verdict form may be viewed here.

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