Youth League Must Face Discrimination Claim

     MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A youth football league must defend itself against a deaf family’s claim the organization refused to provide interpreters so that its children could play, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
     David and Gloria Nathanson sued the Spring Lake Park Panther Youth Football Association on behalf of themselves and their two minor children claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
     U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery denied the league’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, finding the family had standing to enforce both laws.
     Still, the association’s attorney, Laurel Pugh, of Bassford Remele in Minneapolis, said the defendants accomplished what they wanted to with the motion. Four association volunteers were dismissed from the case before the order was issued.
     “That was actually really good. We see this as a win,” Pugh said.
     When the Nathanson children, identified as D.N. and G.N., began playing youth football with the Blaine Athletic Association, the league provided sign language interpreters for practices and games, the complaint states.
     “Beginning in 2012, the Blaine Athletic Association permitted the use of a sideline drum that was struck upon the snap of the football on each play,” it continues. “The vibration of the drum assisted D.N. by signaling when each play started.”
     In 2014, the Fridley School District refused to continue to provide the children with accommodations under their individual education plans, claiming the newly-formed Spring Lake Park league games were not school-sponsored events.
     The league declined to take over providing interpreters, and the drum was discontinued as well, causing the children confusion on the field, according to the complaint.
     But the violations did not stop with the children participating, the family claims.
     The league also refused to provide an interpreter at a required meeting for prospective coaches, which David Nathanson, a former coach and college football player, attended.
     “David provided his own interpreter and completed all the paperwork required to apply for the position, however, he was not offered a coaching position despite a shortage of coaches,” the family says.
     The league also did not provide interpreters at a parent meeting, board meeting or mandatory “Tackle Football Mom’s Clinic,” the complaint states.
     “Plaintiffs contend they have suffered humiliation, embarrassment, and emotional and physical distress as a result of the Football Association’s refusal to provide ASL interpreters,” the complaint states, and they seek monetary damages and a requirement that the league accommodate them.
     The league argued that it is exempt from Title III of the ADA because it does not operate a physical location requiring accommodation – it uses city-owned property to host practices and games.
     However, contrary to the case law it cited, the league does exercise control over a location, Montgomery writes.
     “[T]he Football Association is not merely ‘visiting’ or ‘patronizing’ a place of public accommodation,” the judge writes. “Rather, the Football Association uses the football fields as the primary location for its activities.”
     Further, Montgomery held, the league is open to the public and not “very selective” about who joins, watches the games, or participates. Thus, under Minnesota law, it must provide accommodation.
     As to the league’s claims that the couple lacks standing because their children, not they, participate in football games and practices, the judge said, “For purposes here, Gloria and David’s involvement with the mandatory meetings is closer factually to that of a client or customer rather than an employee or worker,” she writes.
     Pugh said she’s confident discovery will show the football association does not qualify as an operator of a public place, but for now, both parties have achieved their ultimate goal.
     “We were instructed at the first hearing by Judge Montgomery that the goal was for the boys to play football, and that’s always been the association’s goal, and we tried to do everything we could to get them to come back last fall,” she said. “We were able to secure a $3,000 donation from the Mahtomedi Lions Club for interpreters this year, but unfortunately the Nathansons have decided to play for a different association.”
     The association provided the donation to the White Bear Lake league, which the boys now play for, Pugh said.
     The Nathansons are represented by St. Paul-based Heather Gilbert, who did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

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