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Judge Fines Clifton Taxi Firm $42,000 For Ignoring Deaf Woman In Blizzard

New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino
New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino Photo Credit: COURTESY: NJ Governor's Office

CLIFTON, N.J. -- A judge in Paterson ordered a Clifton taxi company to pay $42,000 for ignoring a deaf woman’s attempts to flag a cab using a telecommunications relay service during a blizzard.

“Please stop calling,” an operator for Clifton Taxi and Limousine, Inc. told the woman the third time she tried to get through, authorities said.

In addition to ruling that the company must pay the woman $6,000 for emotional distress, Superior Court Judge Thomas J. LaConte ordered Clifton Taxi to pay the state $20,000 in fines and another $16,000 in attorney fees.

The company violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) Act, which prohibits denying service on the basis of disability or failing to provide "a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability," LaConte ruled.

Nicole Perkins of Queens contacted the company three times through a relay service on Jan. 21, 2014 as she waited for a bus that was delayed in Clifton, state Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino said Monday.

A heavy snow had begun falling in Passaic County and across the state at the time, and a State of Emergency was ultimately declared, he said.

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, Porrino said.

Both times, he said, someone picked up the call and 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, said “Please stop calling,” and then hung up again, the attorney general said.

In addition to the financial penalties, 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," Porrino said.

“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,” the attorney general said.

"This is an important outcome," he added, "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?" Sahsihara said. "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.”

Clifton Taxi offered "multiple and sometimes conflicting reasons for their handling of the Perkins calls," leaving investigato to conclude those reasons “were a pretext for denying service to Perkins because she is deaf, or because she called using a relay service,” he added.

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, authorities said.

The relay operator, in turn, placed a telephone call and attempted to verbally convey the text message communication received from Perkins to Clifton Taxi, they said.

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