A Final Judgment issued by Superior Court Judge Thomas J. LaConte holds that Clifton Taxi and Limousine, Inc. committed violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) including unlawful denial of service on the basis of disability and failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability.
In April of this year, the Division filed a Complaint against Clifton Taxi alleging that Nicole Perkins of Jamaica, N.Y., who is deaf, contacted the company three times through a relay service on Jan. 21, 2014 as she waited for a bus that was delayed in Clifton. A heavy snow had begun falling in Passaic County and across the state at the time, and a State of Emergency was ultimately declared for every county.
Twice in succession, the relay operator called Clifton Taxi’s advertised phone number on behalf of Perkins and announced that she was assisting a deaf caller. Both times, the State’s Complaint alleged, someone picked up the call, then disconnected without responding to the relay operator. When the relay operator called for a third time, someone at Clifton Taxi again picked up the call and responded, “Please stop calling,” then hung up again.
In addition to ruling that the company must pay Perkins $6,000 for emotional distress, Judge LaConte directed that Clifton Taxi pay the State $20,000 in statutory penalties and another $16,000 in attorney fees.
The judge also ordered Clifton Taxi to establish a written policy addressing the accommodation of disabled customers and potential customers, and to arrange for mandatory training of all management and employees on how to do so.
“Setting aside for a moment the egregious nature of the circumstances – a deaf woman being hung up on three times as she sought a ride to escape an oncoming blizzard — the fact is that businesses and other places of public accommodation can’t simply ignore a deaf or hard of hearing person trying to communicate through a relay service,” said Attorney General Porrino. “This is an important outcome, because it puts service providers and other businesses on notice that we’re serious about protecting the rights of persons with hearing and other disabilities, and that we will hold accountable anyone who fails to follow the law.”
“The deaf community merely seeks equal access to the services and opportunities that the hearing community takes for granted,” said Division on Civil Rights Director Craig T. Sashihara. “Businesses have a duty to try to provide ‘reasonable accommodations’ to their deaf customers. The issue often boils down to: What is reasonable versus what is unreasonable? And the answer will vary based on the circumstances. But I feel confident in saying that simply hanging up the phone will never be viewed as an acceptable response to a request for an accommodation.”
During the Division’s investigation, Clifton Taxi offered multiple and sometimes conflicting reasons for their handling of the Perkins calls, leaving the Division to conclude that those reasons “were a pretext for denying service to Perkins because she is deaf, or because she called using a relay service.”
Under federal law, all telecommunications providers are required to provide telecommunications relay services. Through these services, an individual who is deaf, hard of hearing or has a speech disability can communicate — in real time – by telephone.
In the incident at issue, Perkins used a relay service that allowed her to initiate a call by sending a text message from her cell phone to a relay operator.
The relay operator, in turn, placed a telephone call and attempted to verbally convey the text message communication received from Perkins to Clifton Taxi.
In theory, Clifton Taxi would then respond verbally to the relay operator, the relay operator would convey that response to Perkins via text message, Perkins would answer via text message, the relay operator would relay Perkins’ message to Clifton Taxi, and the process would continue – with the relay operator acting as a medium – until the conversation had concluded.
However, after the relay operator was hung up on twice and a third call resulted in the relay operator being asked to stop calling, Perkins gave up trying.
In addition to denying Perkins service, the Division’s original Complaint alleged that Clifton Taxi appeared not to have trained its staff with regard to handling communications from deaf or hearing-impaired customers.
Investigator Agnes Roncaglio and Deputy Attorney General Megan Harris handled the Clifton Taxi matter on behalf of the Division on Civil Rights.