Deaf former Monte councilwoman sues city for lack of closed captioning at council meetings

A former Montesano City Council member has filed a civil suit against the city for failing to provide a sign language interpreter or closed captioning during live streamed and recorded council meetings.

Marisa Salzer filed suit in the U.S District Court, Western District of Washington Feb. 12. The suit said the City of Montesano “discriminated against the plaintiff by failing to provide her with a sign language interpreter nor accurate closed captioning during the bi-weekly City Council meetings which is otherwise open to the public and live streamed on media platforms for public access.”

The suit describes Salzer as “profoundly deaf” and requiring special considerations to participate in public meeting and work situations.

“This case brings much needed awareness to state and local government’s obligation to provide equal access to all of its meetings open to the public,” said Salzer’s attorney, Andrew Rozynski. “During these times, it’s even more important than ever for governments to make their video streamed meetings fully accessible to those with hearing loss. The right to participate in the government process is one our cherished rights as citizens and should be afforded to all.”

Montesano Mayor Vini Samuel said the city was limited as to what it could say early in the lawsuit and the city did not provide a comment at this time.

Salzer was elected to the City Council in 2013. She resigned in March 2015, citing in her letter of resignation what she said were unfair working conditions “of discrimination and harassment against me for requesting accommodations from the city for my hearing disability.”

Salzer had filed a Human Rights Commission complaint against the city, which was settled in 2014. However, she claimed the “discrimination and harassment” continued after that, leading her to tender her resignation. Then-mayor Ken Estes said at the time of Salzer’s resignation the city had made every effort to accommodate her requests.

The current suit claims the City of Montesano has not adequately accommodated her disability by providing closed captioning at its live-streaming council meetings.

The complaint filed with the court states that Salzer had emailed a request to Montesano Mayor Vini Samuel Aug. 24, 2020, that the council meetings be uploaded with accurate closed captioning, and included third party resources regarding captioning requirements.

“On Aug. 26, 2020, the Mayor responded to (Salzer’s) email, informing (Salzer) that she may choose to attend the meeting in-person and use an equipment that would presumably provide some form of service to ‘address hearing impairment,’” reads the complaint, which then references COVID-19 restrictions limiting gathering sizes and current, as of then, statewide pandemic numbers.

The complaint said that Samuel assured Salzer she would work on providing close captioning for the videos streamed and uploaded to Facebook.

“To date, the videos of City Council meetings are streamed and uploaded on Facebook without captioning with the exception of no more than two videos, despite numerous advance notice and request for accommodations formally sent ahead of time by (Salzer),” read the complaint.

“Without closed captioning, (Salzer) is unable to understand the discussions in the City Council meeting, exacerbated by the fact that council members’ faces and lips are covered by masks,” read the complaint.

The city’s failure to accommodate Salzer’s requests are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and state discrimination laws, according to the complaint, and the city’s “willful, knowing and repeated acts of intentional discrimination against (Salzer) evinces a pattern and practice of discrimination that caused (Salzer) to suffer emotional pain and anguish.”

The suit seeks to order the city to develop and implement policy that will consider communication needs for deaf individuals and provide the necessary aids and services, and to appoint a city official to oversee implementation of that policy. It also seeks unspecified compensatory damages, and “punitive damages given the willful, continuous wrongs.”