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Caption case costs Redskins $260K

The Washington Redskins and the owner-operator of FedEx Field must pay nearly $260,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs to three deaf and hard-of-hearing fans who successfully sued the team and its home stadium for failing to make public address announcements accessible via captioning, a federal judge in Greenbelt has ruled.

The Redskins and FedEx Field, both owned by Daniel M. Snyder, had argued the award should be just a quarter of the final amount because they started providing captions six weeks after the lawsuit was filed.

By the time the U.S. District Court ruled in September 2008, the only captions that weren’t provided were song lyrics. However, the captions that were provided appeared on ribbon boards at a 90-degree angle to the JumboTron screens, making it impossible to see both at the same time.

Judge Alexander Williams Jr. said the significance of the fans’ legal victory under the Americans with Disabilities Act warranted an award of the full amount of their attorneys’ fees and costs.

Williams’ 2008 opinion “was the first to declare that the ADA requires a sports venue to make aural information within the stadium bowl accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing fans,” which “was an important rather than a de minimis victory for plaintiffs,” he wrote Wednesday.

Tim Dadson, in-house counsel for the Redskins, did not return telephone messages Tuesday seeking comment on the award and whether the team plans to appeal.

Williams awarded $259,175.14 in attorneys’ fees and costs. Most of that money — $149,081.23 in attorneys’ fees and $14,357.41 for litigation expenses — will go to Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore.

The other $95,736.50 will go to the National Association for the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center, which brought the suit and served as co-counsel.

Brown Goldstein attorney Joe Espo, who represented the three plaintiffs, praised Williams’ award against Pro Football Inc., which manages the Redskins, and Wfi Stadium Inc., which owns and operates FedEx Field.

Espo said the order “clearly” provides an incentive for private law firms, such as his, to take ADA cases in which the award sought is not money but a reasonable accommodation.

“The intent of the fee-shifting provision [in the ADA] is to allow private lawyers to act as private attorneys general to make sure the civil rights laws are followed,” Espo said.

Espo’s co-counsel, Marc P. Charmatz of the National Association for the Deaf, did not return telephone messages Tuesday.

In the lawsuit, the three fans sought a court order requiring that all announcements, advertising, song lyrics and video replays be captioned within sight of the JumboTron displays at either end of FedEx Field in Landover.

The National Association filed suit on Aug. 31, 2006, alleging that the failure to provide captions violated Title III of the ADA, which applies to places of public accommodation such as hotels, restaurants and stadiums.

The lawsuit was filed after Shane Feldman, the lead plaintiff, had repeatedly asked the Redskins and FedEx Field to add closed captioning to its stadium broadcasts. The consistent response had been “We’re looking at it,” according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Paul Singleton and Brian M. Kelly joined Feldman as plaintiffs. The three men had attended games since the Redskins began playing in Landover in 1997.

After the suit was filed, stadium management began providing captions on ribbon boards at either end of the 50-yard line, roughly a 90-degree angle from the JumboTrons. Closed captioning was also added to the television sets on the stadium’s concourse level.

Williams’ 2008 ruling required captioning of all aural content, including song lyrics, on the JumboTrons, and made the accommodation permanent and mandatory rather than voluntary.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 2008 ruling in March.

Williams’ ruling was not the only attorneys’ fee win for Brown, Goldstein & Levy last week. In an unrelated case, the 4th Circuit held that the state of Maryland must pay reasonable fees and costs to the firm for representing Project Vote workers who were barred from trying to register voters at Baltimore train and bus stations.

“It was a good week,” Espo said.