Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Vermont Supreme Court Holds State Public Accommodations Law Applies to Prison

Last week, the Vermont Supreme Court issued its opinion in Department of Corrections v. Human Rights Commission. In its decision, the court held that the state's public accommodations law, which prohibits disability discrimination, applies to state prisons. The opinion begins:

The issue in this appeal is whether the VermontFair Housing and Public Accommodations Act, 9 V.S.A. §§ 4500-4507, applies to state correctional facilities, thereby giving the Human Rights Commission jurisdiction to investigate complaints filed by state prisoners alleging violations of the Act. Based upon its determination that the Act covers state prisons, the superior court denied the Department of Corrections' motion to quash a subpoena served by the Commission in conjunction with a prisoner's discrimination claim. The Department contends that the court erred insofar as prisons do not offer services or benefits to the "general public" and thus are not "places of public accommodation" subject to the Commission's investigatory powers. We conclude that the Legislature intended to make all governmental entities, including state prisons, subject to the Act. Accordingly, we affirm the superior court's decision.

¶ 2. On appeal, the Department relies primarily on a single phrase in one statutory definition to support its argument that state prisons are not covered by the public accommodations statute. Nothing in the language or history of the statute, however, indicates that the Legislature intended the law to cover some governmental entities, but not others, depending on whether, or how directly, they offer services or benefits to the general public. The phrase "general public" within the statutory definition of a "place of public accommodation" is a holdover from the original 1957 statute, which, like similar laws in other jurisdictions, was aimed at assuring that private establishments catering to members of the general public did not discriminate on the basis of race or other specified criteria. Hence, a "place of public accommodation" was defined as an establishment that provided benefits or services to the general public. The critical inquiry, then, in determining which private entities were covered by the law was whether a particular establishment served the general public. That question makes little sense, however, when applied to public or governmental entities, which are created for the very purpose of serving the general public.

¶ 3. The most reasonable interpretation of the statute, particularly considering that it must be liberally construed to effectuate its remedial purpose, is that the Legislature intended to make all governmental entities, in addition to all private entities offering services or benefits to the general public, subject to the Act's anti-discrimination provisions. There is support for this interpretation not only in the statutory language, but also in the history of the statutory amendments and the legislative policy underlying the Act. In particular, the legislative history of the 1992 amendment unequivocally confirms that the Act was intended to apply to all governmental entities and to provide a local enforcement mechanism for claims actionable under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12300, which applies to all public entities, including state prisons.


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