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Deaf Couple Files Lawsuit Against Duval Clerk of Courts After Marriage License Refusal

October 10, 2022
Source: Florida Times-Union

Joel Alfaro and Yusela Machado Silvente were ready to get married one year ago when they went to the Duval County Clerk of Courts Office to get their marriage license.

Both deaf, they had first met exactly 10 years earlier and were finally ready to tie the knot on that anniversary, they said.

But the couple said the clerk’s office refused to process their marriage license on October 15, 2021. They got the same response multiple times through this past August. The reason: They didn’t bring a sign language interpreter with them to the clerk’s office. 

Now Alfaro and Silvente have filed a federal lawsuit saying Duval County Clerk of Court Jody Phillips and his office violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

With a copy of the clerk’s guidelines, Silvente spoke via America[n] Sign Language through an interpreter in attorney John Phillips’ office about how their thrill of getting married turned into walking home “in tears” after being denied a license.

The guidelines state the 4th Judicial Circuit provides “interpreter services and reasonable accommodations for deaf persons in all cases” in accordance with state statutes and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet the clerk of courts staff even refused to allow them to handle the license work via text messages or written comments, Silvente said. 

“The sanctity of marriage was something we were really looking forward to,” she said. “… Mr. Alfaro tried to calm me down as we continued to get ‘no’s,’ and at the end of it, the shock and awe was really overwhelming. It was pretty devastating and I tried to figure out just how this was happening.”

Phillips, joined by Washington, D.C.-based co-counsels Mary Vargas and Marc Charmatz of the National Association of the Deaf via videoconference, said the clerk of courts actions simply violate federal law.

There is “no excuse” for what was done to this couple, said Vargas, calling the details of this case a “gut punch.”

“I cannot begin to imagine what it is like for Joel and Yusela,” Vargas said. “The ability to get married, I cannot think what is more fundamental to a person’s humanity, to a person’s right to live their life with children, with a spouse and to have access to all of the benefits that everybody else has.”

Clerk of courts spokesman Brian Corrigan said his office does not comment on pending litigation.

“However, the clerk does take the allegations seriously and will continue to ensure we provide the best service possible to each customer in our office,” his short statement concluded.

The rocky road to marriage

The lawsuit states that the clerk of courts office is prohibited from discriminating against “qualified individuals with disabilities on the basis of disability,” while the clerk himself is being sued because he denied the couple a license to marry.

“Defendants unequivocally denied Mr. Alfaro and Ms. Machado Silvente a license because they are deaf,” the lawsuit states. “Since that time, the defendants have repeatedly failed to respond to Mr. Alfaro’s pleas that he and Ms. Machado Silvente be allowed to marry. This irrational, anachronistic, offensive, and discriminatory conduct by the defendants violates the United States Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.”

The couple met in Bogota, Colombia. Moving to Jacksonville, Alfaro proposed to Silvente on Jacksonville Beach, and she accepted. Then they went to the clerk’s office one year ago to secure their marriage license, shooting happy photos outside before going in.

The lawsuit states that Duval County’s court allows marriage licenses to be obtained on a walk-in basis. Although Alfaro and Silvente satisfied all required elements to obtain the license, the lawsuit states that the clerk’s office “refused to issue” one unless they provided an interpreter.

When the couple said they did not have one, the clerk’s office advised them to bring a friend or family member to help. The couple asked if they could “communicate via writing to obtain the marriage license in the absence of an interpreter.” Despite what the instructions on the clerk’s office website say about deaf interpreters, staff refused and reiterated that the couple had to bring an interpreter themselves.

The couple sought confirmation from a supervisor and waited as other couples who were not deaf and arrived after them were issued marriage licenses, according to the lawsuit. After about an hour, a supervisor also confirmed that the office would not provide an interpreter or issue a marriage license unless Alfaro and Silvente brought their own interpreter.

‘Humiliated’ by ‘discriminatory treatment’

They “were humiliated by the discriminatory treatment against them and suffered stigmatic injury” on a day that was supposed to be very special, the lawsuit says.

Alfaro said he made at least eight phone calls to the clerk’s office to find a way to get the license, but messages left via its telecommunications device for the deaf were never returned or no interpreter was available. The last attempt was in August when Alfaro was told again that no interpreter would be provided.

“Unfortunately my family is primarily Spanish speaking and we do not have interpreters at our whim,” Alfaro said through the interpreter. “We would require that skill to qualify for such a legal matter and obviously provide clarity and communications during the situation of obtaining that license.”

They said they still hope to get married on what will soon be the 12th anniversary of their first meeting.

“The fact that hearing couples were issued marriage licenses while they were sent away, it defies words,” Vargas said.

The National Association of the Deaf is a civil rights organization for deaf and hard of hearing people that was established in 1880, based in Maryland.

“How could this be in 2021/2022 that a deaf couple cannot get married,” Chamatz said. “So often I have known that hearing people say that deaf people can’t do something, can’t do this, can’t do that. But when you can’t get married, one of the most fundamental rights in this country, legal action is necessary.”

In the end, Phillips said he believes he could have worked with Clerk of Courts Phillips and found a way to get this couple’s marriage certificate. But the lawsuit will ensure that other deaf couples aren’t faced with the same challenges his clients have endured.

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