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Spellman v. Disability Rights Wisconsin

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

February 22, 2019




         On November 26, 2018, the plaintiff filed a complaint here in federal court. Dkt. No. 1. The complaint indicates that the plaintiff is "a totally disabled person for the purposes of filing this Complaint," and indicates that the plaintiff's guardian, Thomas Spellman, filed the complaint on her behalf. Id. at pp. 1, 3. The plaintiff has sued two defendants-Disability Rights Wisconsin and the National Disability Rights Network. Id. at pp. 1-2. The complaint indicates that the plaintiff is suing these two defendants for "a violation of federal law under 28 U.S.C. ss 1331." Id. at p. 2.

         The complaint states that the plaintiff is a totally disabled person living in Delavan, Wisconsin. It does not provide the plaintiff's age. It does not say whether the plaintiff has a job (and if she does, where she works, and what kind of work she does). One of the attachments to the complaint is a document titled "Gifts of the Sheltered Workshop." Dkt. No. 1-2. This document appears to have been prepared by the plaintiff's guardian and father, Thomas Spellman. Id. at 5. It states that the plaintiff has "been working at VIP Service, a Sheltered Workshop in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, for fifteen years." Id. at 1. Along with the complaint, the plaintiff filed a request to proceed in this case without prepaying the filing fee. Dkt. No. 2. In that request, she says that she works for VIP Services in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, that she receives Social Security benefits and that she lives with her parents. Id. at 2. The court agrees with Magistrate Judge Joseph that the plaintiff lacks the means to pay the filing fee in this case.

         The complaint alleges that the two defendants have discriminated against the plaintiff "by conspiring to deny [the plaintiff her] RIGHT to WORK for a 'special minimum wage' as allowed by LAW by a number of actions." Id. at 1. The complaint refers to an attachment for an explanation of how the defendants discriminated. Id. The complaint asserts that the discrimination started when the Board of the National Disability Rights Network published a document in 2011. Id. at 1-2. The plaintiff asserts that this document has not been withdrawn. Id. at 2. She also states that Disability Rights Wisconsin "FALSELY, in their 'Principles for Employment of People with Disabilities,' to include [the plaintiff's] RIGHT to WORK for the "special minimum wage" as allowed by LAW." Id. She refers the court to another attachment. Id.

         On December 3, 2018, Judge Joseph issued a recommendation to this court that it dismiss the plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim. Dkt. No. 5. Judge Joseph noted that the defendants are nonprofit organizations established to provide legal support, advocacy, referral and education to protect the rights of disabled people and their families. Id. at 3. In January 2011, the board of defendant National Disability Rights Network published a document (attached to the complaint as dkt. no. 1-3) titled, "Segregated and Exploited: A Call to Action! The Failure of the Disability Service System to Provide Quality Work." Id. Judge Joseph noted that the document appeared to criticize something called "sheltered workshops," asserting that they segregated and exploited disabled people and paid them "sub-minimum wage." Id. Disability Rights Wisconsin, Judge Joseph noted, published a document titled "Principles for employment of People with Disabilities" that said, among other things, that disabled people should receive minimum wage or higher, and the same wage as employees who don't have disabilities. Id. at 3-4.

         Judge Joseph explained that in the "Gifts of the Sheltered Workshop" document that the plaintiff's parents attached to the complaint, they indicated that federal law-the Fair Labor Standards Act-provided for persons with disabilities to be paid a "special minimum wage." Id. at 4, citing Dkt. No. 1-2 at 1-2 and 29 U.S.C. §214(c). The plaintiff's parents explained that the special minimum wage was reasonable for disabled workers, because they weren't as productive as abled workers, and that it allowed disabled people to have access to work they might not otherwise have. The plaintiff's parents also argued that the "sheltered workshop" employment model was valuable-it provided disabled individuals a variety of work experiences, allowed them to work at their own pace, offered stability and predictability, and provided many other benefits. Id.

         Judge Joseph concluded that the plaintiff and her father appear to be very grateful for the existence of sheltered workshops like VIP, Inc. It sounds like the plaintiff feels that if it weren't for the special minimum wage, and if it wasn't for sheltered workshops, she might not be able to work at all, much less have spent the last fifteen years working productively and happily at VIP, Inc. Judge Joseph understood that the plaintiff and her parents are upset that the defendants-groups that say they advocate for disabled people and exist to help disabled people-have published policy recommendations that criticize and even propose to do away with sheltered workshops and the special minimum wage that have been so valuable and helpful to the plaintiff. Id. at 5. Even though Judge Joseph understood the feelings of the plaintiff and her parents, however, she explained that First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the defendants the right to express their opinions about sheltered workshops and the special minimum wage. Id. She explained if conscientious citizens like the plaintiff and her parents do not want a particular policy to become law, they should present their arguments to their elected representatives, not to a court. Id. Because Judge Joseph found that the plaintiff had alleged only that the defendants expressed opinions with which she does not agree-something that is not only legal, but protected by the First Amendment-she recommended that this court dismiss the plaintiff's case for failure to state a claim.

         The plaintiff has objected to Judge Joseph's recommendation. Dkt. No. 7. The plaintiff says that she is defending her right to work and to be paid the special minimum wage. Id. at 1. She says that the defendants have discriminated against her by conspiring to deny her her right to work for the special minimum wage. Id. She says that in advocating against sheltered workshops and calling the special minimum wage sub-minimum, the defendants are "actively taking actions against" her interest. Id. at 2.

         The plaintiff asserts that in saying that she (as a disabled person) is exploited, or that the sheltered work model (which she very much supports) is broken, or that the special minimum wage for disabled workers is "sub-minimum," or that sheltered work models "segregate" disabled people from abled people, the defendants are lying about her. Id. She says that lying about someone equals discrimination, and that by lying about her and other disabled people, the defendants are discriminating against those disabled people-even though their stated purpose is to protect the interests of disabled people. Id. at 2. The plaintiff insists that it is discrimination for a disability rights advocacy group to take a position different from the position that she-a disabled person-holds. Id. She asks whether the defendants can "pick and choose who they will PROTECT and which RIGHTS of mine and the others they will defend?" Id. She asks, "What is the difference between an 'opinion' protectable by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and a LIE?" Id.

         The plaintiff asserts that it is a lie for the defendants to say that she is segregated, because she is not and she can't be. Id. at 2-3. She says that the defendants lie when they say she is exploited, because she is not. Id. at 3. She says that the defendants lie when they say that she is paid a "sub-minimum wage," a term she says is fabricated. Id. To sum up her argument, the plaintiff says.

The simple question is can NDRN and DRW LIE about me and the others? YES or NO. If no then the final answer is easy, they have lied about me and must stop lying about me. If YES then who represents me and the others when the NRDN and DRW represent the interest that are in direct conflict with my and the other's interest?


         Judge Joseph is correct that, despite her frustration and her passion, the plaintiff has not stated a legal claim for which a federal court can grant relief. The plaintiff stated in her complaint that she was suing "for a violation of federal law under 28 U.S.C. ss 1331." Dkt. No. 1 at 2. Section 1331 gives federal courts the authority to exercise jurisdiction over lawsuits that arise under the United States Constitution, or federal laws, or United States treaties. For this federal court to grant the plaintiff relief, she must allege facts that show that the defendants did something that violated a federal law or a provision of the Constitution.

         There is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against disabled people. It is called the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the "ADA." The ADA, located at 42 U.S.C. §12112, et seq., says that "[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of a disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job ...

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