Friday, May 17, 2002
County, Superior Court Hit With Class Action Over Accessibility for Disabled People to Courthouses
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Four people, including two attorneys, sued Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles Superior Court in federal court yesterday claiming the county’s courthouses are inaccessible to people with disabilities and violate regulations set out in the American with Disabilities Act.
The class action lawsuit was brought by Deborah Miles, Betty Wilson and attorneys Robin Maisel and David G. Geffen—all of who use either wheelchairs or crutches. They are seeking an order that all of the county’s courthouses be in compliance with the ADA standards. The plaintiffs are also seeking attorney fees and unspecified damages.
“You can’t have justice without accessibility,” plaintiffs’ attorney Paula Pearlman of the Western Law Center for Disability Rights said.
Pearlman listed a number of violations of the American Disabilities Act in the Central Courthouse downtown and the courthouses in Long Beach, Compton, Santa Monica, Norwalk, Pasadena and Van Nuys, which serve as a representative sampling of the county’s 58 courthouses.
The violations include doorknobs that are inaccessible to people with limited use of their hands, wheelchair ramps that are too steep for people in wheelchairs to use, and courtrooms without sufficient space for someone in a wheelchair to watch court proceedings.
Two more courthouses will soon be added to the county’s court system, with the Chatsworth courthouse due to open its doors June 3 and the courthouse in Lancaster in the process of being built. Pearlman said she has not yet seen those courthouses to see if they are also violating ADA standards.
The Western Law Center for Disability Rights, which has an externship program with Loyola Law School, had law students use tape measures to measure doorways and ballpoint pens to test the how steep wheelchair ramps were at the seven different courthouses.
In the downtown courthouse, there are 94 courtrooms that do not have witness stands that are accessible to people with disabilities, Pearlman said.
“There are 94 cases in which you cannot testify,” she said.
Also at the downtown courthouse, there are 76 courtrooms that cannot accommodate people in wheelchairs, she said.
At the Norwalk courthouse, there are ramps leading up to witness stands, but they have a step before the ramp, negating the purpose of the ramp, she said.
People with disabilities are also excluded from juries because the jury boxes are not designed to accommodate a wheelchair, Pearlman said.
Maisel, an attorney in Glendale, said he has served on a jury in the past, but because of his wheelchair, he was separated from the rest of the jury and forced to sit out of the jury box.
Pearlman and attorney Dan Stormer of Hadsell and Stormer sharply criticized the court for knowing about the non-compliance and doing nothing.
“The biggest scofflaw is the County of Los Angeles and its courts,” Stormer said.
Maisel, who has multiple sclerosis, said he stopped practicing law three years ago due in part to the difficulties he encounters when trying to access the courts.
Even when he was practicing, Maisel said he made a conscious effort to choose cases that would require less time in the courtroom because of the difficulties courtroom work presented.
Geffen, a Santa Monica lawyer, said he encounters similar problems when appearing in court.
Geffen was paralyzed after a diving accident in Santa Monica and uses a manual wheelchair. He also has limited hand use.
Just going through court security takes three times as long as others because he must be patted down each time after his wheelchair sets the metal detector off, Geffen said.
He also received a $150 parking ticket for parking in a handicapped parking spot at the downtown Civil Courthouse on Hill Street on Wednesday, even though his car was clearly marked.
The alternative, Geffen said, is to park in the parking lot at the top of a hill. In order to navigate the steep path from the parking lot, Geffen said he has become friendly with the homeless people who help guide his wheelchair down the hill.
“It’s extremely embarrassing and humiliating to have to rely on other people to do things for me that I should be able to do myself,” Geffen said. “I do not have these problems in 90 percent of the places I visit.”
The county is responsible for providing and maintaining facilities for the Los Angeles Superior Court.
But Court Counsel Fred Bennett said there may be some shared responsibility between the county and the court in providing sufficient access to people with disabilities.
The court does attempt to transfer a case to a more accessible courthouse if it is notified there is a need, he said.
“This is an issue of great concern to the court,” Bennett said.
But the court is restricted in the physical improvements it can make to courthouses, both because the county owns the building and by the restrictions on its capital construction funds, Bennett said.
“We are dependent on the county of Los Angeles for the most part,” he said.
County lawyers did not return calls for comment.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company