Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Disability Lawyers File Class Action Over San Bernardino Courthouses
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Disability Rights Legal Center yesterday filed a class action in U.S. district court against San Bernardino County and the San Bernardino Superior Court over alleged deficiencies in courthouse accessibility for disabled patrons.
Filed in the Central District of California’s Riverside courthouse, Goldkorn v. County of San Bernardino, CV-00707, claims violations of various federal and state statutes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the First and Fifth Amendments, and the California Constitution.
The five named plaintiffs, all wheelchair users who allege harm due to unsuitable courthouse facilities, are seeking a declaratory judgment that the county and superior court are violating the law, as well as an injunction directing them to modify the county’s 11 courthouse facilities to provide adequate access.
“There are myriad access issues throughout the San Bernardino courts, including inadequate parking, lack of accessible paths of travel to and within courthouses, as well as inaccessible courtrooms, clerks’ offices, filing windows, libraries, bathrooms, cafeterias, elevators, and witness stands,” the complaint asserts. “The systemic nature of these barriers creates a court system that is a real life obstacle course for people with disabilities.”
The complaint includes allegations by plaintiff Alfred Chichester, a frequently retained expert witness in civil matters, that most witness stands in San Bernardino courtrooms are completely inaccessible to him. As a result, Chichester allegedly must sit on a platform next to the witness box, which hampers his view of many of the jurors and enables the jurors closest to him to see the notes he places in his lap.
On one occasion, the complaint states, Chichester was present as a defense witness but had to sit at the plaintiff’s counsel’s table during his testimony due to an inaccessible witness stand.
Among the plaintiffs are San Bernardino attorney Michael Flippin, who on one visit to the San Bernardino courthouse was unable even to enter the courtroom to make an appearance, and had to announce his presence from the doorway. The matter was y transferred to a courtroom in the Rancho Cucamonga courthouse as a result, the plaintiffs said.
Shawna L. Parks, director of litigation for the DRLC, told the MetNew:
“I think the barriers that exist through the San Bernardino court system are pretty readily apparent. The law is pretty clear on this issue, and we think that we will be able to make a strong case in front of the judge on this matter.”
She added that the accessibility problems on attorneys with disabilities was “particularly poignant”:
“[T]here are substantial numbers of attorneys affected by it, and we know that the ways in which attorneys with disabilities are impacted by this has an impact on their practice, has an impact on their clients and the way that they do business.”
The DRLC brought a similar suit against Los Angeles County that ended in a settlement this January, under which the County agreed to make substantial changes to improve accessibility in 51 Superior Court courthouses. The modifications, which have been commenced and will cost approximately $4.6 million in their entirety, include removal of the double leaf swinging gates that separate spectators from participants, or replacement with ADA compliant swinging gates.
“It’s particularly ironic that the very place where one goes to seek access to justice, is the very place that people with disabilities encounter so many barriers,” Parks said.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company