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Reversal for Disabled Woman ‘Hectored’ by Chicago Judge

CHICAGO (CN) - Reviving discrimination claims from a woman whose neurological disorder makes it nearly impossible for her to speak, the Seventh Circuit slammed an Illinois judge who ridiculed her instead of simply providing for an interpreter.

Though the opinion published on Oct. 30 makes no mention of the frustrated judge's name, a decision dismissing the case last year names the jurist as Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sidney Jones III.

When Jones presided over a personal-injury trial in 2011, the plaintiff in the case, Linda Reed, of Milwaukee, Wis., had just been diagnosed with a rare disorder called tardive dyskinesia.

A side effect of antipsychotic medication, tardive dyskinesia causes random movements of different muscles within the body, especially the face and tongue.

Reed's involuntary movements "include tongue thrusting, pursing of the lips, choking, and side-to-side chewing of the jaw," the Seventh Circuit notes. Under stress, her symptoms become worse - she can become mute, scream or make nonverbal sounds.

Reed did not have a lawyer for her court case, however, and was forced her to articulate her claims to a jury, a highly difficult task given her disability.

Though Judge Jones let Reed have a family member take notes for her, he denied her other accommodations such as a microphone, an interpreter or a jury instruction explaining her disorder.

"Apart from being denied these aids, she was hectored by the judge, who may not have understood the gravity of her disorder," the Seventh Circuit's ruling states. "The judge told the jury that the plaintiff has a 'speech impediment,' but that made it sound as if she stammers or has a lisp, and thus understated the gravity of her disability. The judge knew or should have known that it was her condition, rather than willful defiance of courtroom proprieties, that was responsible for the long, involuntary pauses in her statements; yet he kept telling her to 'hurry up,' to move on to the 'next question,' and to wrap up her examination of witnesses."

At one point, Jones lashed out when Reed struggled to respond to a question on cross-examination. "I have been waiting ten seconds for you to answer and am moving on to the next thing," Jones said, according to the ruling.

Later, a piece of gum Reed had been chewing to control her involuntary movements fell out of her mouth, and she experienced a convulsion in front of the jury when the Judge Jones chastised her.

Jones "at times yelled at her, glared at her, smacked his bench, leaned forward, and otherwise expressed annoyance with her - all in front of the jury," according to the 12-page opinion.

When the jury ruled against Reed and she moved for a new trial, the court refused, noting that she "at all times presented as having been fully mentally capable and alert, physically able except for the speech condition, and clearly frustrated whenever she experienced such interruptions."

Reed had wanted to present oral argument on this motion, Judge Jones denied this, citing her "severe speech impediment that prevents her from communicating in any vocal fashion."

Reviving the disability-discrimination case Reed later filed against Illinois, the Seventh Circuit called Jones' reasoning "puzzling."

"Ability to speak was the critical physical ability that the plaintiff needed in order to litigate a jury case; without that ability, being 'fully mentally capable and alert' couldn't do much for her," Judge Richard Posner wrote for the court (emphasis in original.)

If Reed was indeed "incapable of 'communicating in any vocal fashion' with regard to her post-trial motion, how can she not have needed a microphone and interpreter at the trial to help her over-come her 'readily observable speech impediment?'" Posner asked.

Joined by Ann Claire Williams in the majority opinion, Posner noted that there was no transcript of the trial, leaving the court unable to verify Judge Jones' claim that he gave Reed sufficient accommodation to present her case effectively.

The 12-page opinion concludes that Jones' determination "that [Reed's] disability had been adequately accommodated was untenable."

Judge Diane Sykes dissented, writing that she would not second-guess the state judge's decision.

"Mere disagreement with a final ruling in a prior case isn't a proper basis for a later court to deny its normal preclusive effect," she wrote.

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