Language Access Legal Year in Review: 2016

2016 had its share of big legal developments – in courtrooms and from federal agencies.  In deciding the year’s highlights, the challenge always comes in determining which ones to choose.  Throwing caution to the wind, here are my choices for some of this year’s biggest legal news items and thoughts about 2017.

U.S. Census Bureau Requires that Election Information Be Provided in Languages Other than English

This year’s presidential election surely topped the list of big events for the year. But, in a piece of legal election news, one recent development garnered little comparative attention while having a big long term impact.

On December 5, 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau designated the states, counties, and municipalities required to provide election information in certain non-English languages under the Voting Rights Act’s Section 203. The Census Bureau’s designations are legally final and cannot be overturned by any U.S. court.

The designations remain in effect for at least five years, when new designations will be announced. The 2016 selections will be in place and the law for the 2020 presidential election.

Many parts of the United States are newly designated, facing for the first time the federal requirement of translating election information, ballots, and materials into other languages while also using bilingual poll workers.

These places include: Fairfax County, Virginia; Kent, Connecticut; Colfax Township and Fennville, Michigan; Buena Vista and Tama Counties, Iowa; Lincoln County, Idaho; and Gwinnett County, Georgia.

Federal Courts Approach Ruling on Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Federal appeals courts may be on the verge of deciding, for the first time, that sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently heard oral arguments on this issue and gave hints of eventually deciding to include sexual orientation as a protected category under federal law. Two other appeals courts will hear their own cases in coming weeks, before the end of January 2017.

In 2016, most federal trial-level courts deciding cases about sexual orientation and sexual identity discrimination ruled that federal law bars such discrimination.  The courts mostly agreed with guidance from the Obama Administration that interpreted “sex discrimination” to include sexual identity and sexual orientation.

The U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on this topic by the end of June 2017 when the Court decides a transgender discrimination case involving a public school district and a student in Gloucester County, Virginia.  The Supreme Court’s ruling may well have a major impact on the debate whether federal civil rights laws protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.

U.S. Department of Labor Expands Overtime Pay Rules

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a rule requiring employers to expand the number of their employees entitled to overtime pay under federal law.  This rule had the potential to expand dramatically how many employees must receive overtime pay for the work they do.  However, on November 29, 2016, a federal court in Texas blocked this rule from going into effect.  Whether or not the case and the rule continue after the new administration takes office is one of the questions for 2017.

New ACA Section 1557 Regulations Go into Effect

On July 18, 2016, new health care civil rights regulations under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act became federal law.  The regulations, including requirements for communicating with limited English proficient people and deaf patients, are the most far reaching civil rights protections for health care in U.S. history.  In 2016, many lawsuits were filed alleging Section 1557 discrimination.  Next year, we may see the first big court decisions under these new regulations.

Department of Justice Continues ADA Rule-Making and Enforcement

The Department of Justice (DOJ) continued its Americans with Disabilities Act rule-making and enforcement.  DOJ issued new rules requiring movie theaters to provide closed captioning and audio movie descriptions.  DOJ entered consent agreements with health care providers, cities, and businesses concerning disability discrimination, including providing sign language interpreters and other communication methods for deaf and blind people.

DOJ also continued its rule-making and litigation about requiring websites and online materials to be accessible for disabled people, including deaf people who cannot hear online videos and blind people who cannot read documents posted on websites.

Also, in 2016, the number of lawsuits claiming that organizations’ websites could not be used by disabled people grew dramatically compared to 2015.  I expect this trend to continue and expand in 2017.