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The American Council of Blind v. Mnuchin

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

December 26, 2017

The American Council of the Blind, et al., Appellants
Steven T. Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, Appellee

          Argued October 19, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:02-cv-00864)

          Jeffrey A. Lovitky argued the cause and filed briefs for the appellants.

          Megan Barbero, Attorney, United States Department of Justice, argued the cause for the appellee. Charles W. Scarborough, Attorney, was with her on brief.

          Before: Henderson and Srinivasan, Circuit Judges, and Williams, Senior Circuit Judge.



         In 2008, we held that visually impaired individuals lacked meaningful access to United States paper currency in violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Am. Council of the Blind v. Paulson, 525 F.3d 1256 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (remanding to district court). The district court subsequently issued an injunction ordering the Secretary of the United States Department of the Treasury (Secretary) to provide meaningful access by the next time the Treasury Department released redesigned banknotes. The Secretary approved a plan to do so that called for, in part, using raised tactile features on bills so that visually impaired individuals could differentiate banknote denominations by touch.

         At the time, the district court and the parties expected- based on the timeframe of previous redesigns and the Secretary's representations-that the next round of redesigned currency would occur between 2013 and 2018. Now, however, the next redesigns will fall-if everything goes according to the Treasury Department's plan, which has not been the case so far-between 2026 and 2038. Understandably, plaintiffs American Council of the Blind and Patrick Sheehan asked the district court to modify the injunction to hold the Secretary to an earlier deadline for providing meaningful access to currency. The district court declined and this appeal followed. For the following reasons, we reverse and remand for the district court to better support its findings supporting its denial of modified injunctive relief.

         I. Background

         In 2002, the plaintiffs sued the Secretary, alleging that the design of United States paper currency violated section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides that no qualified individual with a disability "shall, solely by reason" of the disability, "be denied the benefits of" federal programs. 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). Under section 504, disabled individuals must have "meaningful access" to the benefit. Alexander v. Choate, 469 U.S. 287, 301 (1985).

         Depending on the source, an estimated 8 to 12 million Americans are visually impaired, including approximately 300, 000 to 1.3 million who are blind. U.S. Gov't Accountability Office, U.S. Currency: Reader Program Should Be Evaluated While Other Accessibility Features for Visually Impaired Persons Are Developed 3 (Sept. 2014) [hereinafter GAO U.S. Currency Report] (collecting studies). The plaintiffs claimed visually impaired individuals lacked "meaningful access" to paper currency because denominations of our paper currency cannot be distinguished except by sight. Unlike the currency of many other countries, our paper currency does not come in different sizes or have different tactile characteristics that denote the currency's denomination.

         The district court held that the Secretary had violated section 504 by "fail[ing] to design and issue paper currency that is readily distinguishable to blind and visually impaired individuals" and entered a declaratory judgment for the plaintiffs. Am. Council of the Blind v. Paulson, 463 F.Supp.2d 51, 62 (D.D.C. 2006). We affirmed the declaratory judgment but remanded for the district court to "address the request for injunctive relief." Am. Council of the Blind, 525 F.3d at 1260. We did not prescribe how the Secretary must comply with section 504 but instead stated that the Secretary "has discretion to choose from a range of accommodations" to provide meaningful access to paper currency. Id. at 1271.

         On remand, the district court held a hearing to determine the terms of the injunction. The district court, "detect[ing] . . . [t]he familiar slow moving hand of the government, " Joint Appendix (JA) 317, expressed concern about an "open-ended" timeline, JA 318. At the hearing, the Treasury Department counsel noted that the Secretary had an ongoing statutory mandate to protect against counterfeiting threats in any currency redesign[1] and said: "I think it's more than a goal, I think it is the standard that . . . every seven to 10 years [the Treasury] want[s] to come out with new designs." JA 325.

         The district court apparently interpreted counsel to mean the Treasury Department "requires new currency" every seven to ten years. JA 328. There is no such statutory mandate, however; the seven-to-ten-year period is an internal government expectation. See JA 286 (Secretary's October 3, 2008 Status Report, describing timeline as "goal"). Against the backdrop of the seven-to-ten-year expectation, the district judge decided-and the parties agreed-that it would be "reasonable" to link the deadline for section 504 compliance to the next planned redesign. JA 328. At the time, the parties expected the next redesigns to fall between 2013 and 2018 if the seven-to-ten-year goal was adhered to as it had been since the 1990s.[2]

         Accordingly, the district court issued an injunction on October 3, 2008, ordering the Secretary to "take such steps as may be required to provide meaningful access to [each denomination of] United States currency for blind and other visually impaired persons . . . not later than the date when a redesign of that denomination is next approved" by the Secretary. [3] JA 265. Thus, the district court coupled the Secretary's duty to provide meaningful access to currency to the timeline for the next currency redesign rather than setting a separate, firm deadline. Under the injunction, the Secretary also had to file status reports every six months.

         In 2011, the Secretary approved the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing's (Bureau) recommended three-pronged approach to providing meaningful access to currency: (1) add a raised tactile feature to bills; (2) continue adding large, high-contrast numerals to bills; and (3) implement a supplemental currency-reader distribution program. At the time, the Secretary had not "established a timetable for the next currency redesign" although he restated the Bureau's "goal" to do so every seven to ten years. JA 286.

         Since 2011, the Bureau has produced tangible results under the second prong; all denominations include large numerals and some denominations-the $5, the $50 and the $100-include high-contrast numerals. The Bureau has also achieved limited results under the third prong. It created and produced free currency readers (the iBill Talking Banknote Identifier, an electronic key-fob-style device that reads inserted banknotes and announces the denomination by voice, tone or vibration) that, as of September 2017, it has distributed 55, 216 times. It also developed free currency-reading applications for mobile phones (the EyeNote for Apple devices and the IDEAL Currency Identifier for Android devices), which have been downloaded a combined 47, 868 times as of September 2017.[4]But the external currency readers help approximately 100, 000 individuals-between 1.2 per cent and 4 per cent of all Americans who are visually impaired, depending on the source. Meeting the first prong has been a ...

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