Texas city settles in long-running sidewalk accessibility lawsuit

The city council of Arlington, Texas approved a settlement October 16 with a class of people with disabilities whom sued the city over its failure to provide accessible sidewalks, in a case that was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, though the high court declined to hear the case.

Accessibility Key on Keyboard
Accessibility Case Settled

The settlement requires the city to correct about 50 accessibility issues relating to barriers on curbs, sidewalks and driveway crossings, which will cost the city about $200,000 over the next two years, according to an article in the Star-Telegram.

The lawsuit, filed in 2005, was originally dismissed by a federal district court, which ruled that the plaintiffs could not sue the city because the sidewalks were built more than two years prior, putting the plaintiff’s complaints outside Texas’ two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims.

On appeal, the city of Arlington argued that the plaintiff’s claims were too broad, on the argument that sidewalks are not government services for the purposes of the ADA. Thus, the city argued it should only be held liable for barriers to sidewalks that directly prevent individuals from receiving services.

The city received the backing of the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, whom were concerned about possible litigation costs to cities that failed to remain in compliance.

In an 8-7 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in September 2011 narrowly rejected the city’s arguments.

In analyzing the ADA’s language, which requires cities to “make newly built and altered sidewalks readily accessible to individuals with disabilities,” the 5th Circuit found that Congress intended for all sidewalks to be covered by the Act.

“In enacting Title II, Congress found that individuals with disabilities suffer from ‘various forms of discrimination’ including isolation and segregation and that inaccessible transportation is a critical area of discrimination,” the court stated. “Moreover, Congress understood that accessible transportation is the linchpin that promotes self-reliance and self-sufficiency of people with disabilities.”

The 5th Circuit also rejected the city’s statute-of-limitations argument, finding that enforcement of this limitation would allow cities a loophole to continuously skirt their ADA obligations if they are lucky enough to avoid being sued within the two-year window.

“The City may avoid liability whenever it chooses simply by building sidewalks right the first time, or by fixing its original unlawful construction,” the court stated. “In other words, the City is not liable forever; it is responsible only for correcting its own mistakes. This is not too much to ask, even when the City’s mistakes have gone unchallenged for two years.”

The Supreme Court declined to grant certiorari to hear the case in February 2012.

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