Monday, September 15, 2014

Disability rights advocates sue over DC's emergency plans

From Legal Times:

Washington-area disability-rights advocates this week filed a federal class action against the District of Colombia and its mayor, alleging the city’s emergency plan discriminates against people with disabilities.

The United Spinal Association and The DC Center for Independent Living, along with three Washington residents, seek declaratory and injunctive relief against the District and Mayor Vincent Gray, according to their complaint.

“What I would like is for the judge to realize that the D.C. emergency plan is lacking and that there do need to be changes made to the program so it can serve members of the community,” said Alexandra Bennewith, vice president of government relations for United Spinal. “That’s the whole point. There is not a plan right now.”

The lawsuit, which mirrors similar suits against New York City in 2013 and Los Angeles in 2011, alleges Washington’s emergency response plan violates the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the D.C. Human Rights Act, Bennewith said.

According to the complaint, Washington’s District Response Plan, drafted by the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, “has failed to adequately plan to meet the needs of its approximately 72,000 residents with disabilities.”

A 2010 agency report states it worked with Washington’s Office on Disability Services to “ensure awareness about the city’s emergency response plan.” An agency checklist urges disabled people to stockpile money and medication and keep friends on speed dial in case of a disaster.

“That is not an emergency plan any way you look at it,” Bennewith said. “We do have many events where we bring our members into D.C. God knows what would happen if there was some type of emergency that wouldn’t be able to handle all of those folks.”

The agency and D.C.’s Office of the Attorney General declined to comment.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in New York ruled in November 2013 that New York City’s emergency plan violated the ADA, Rehabilitation Act and the New York City Human Rights Law. Disability-rights groups filed the class action following Hurricane Sandy (pictured).

According to court documents, Furman ruled the city failed to make disaster centers accessible to disabled people; draft and execute an escape plan for disabled people stranded in high-rise apartments; and educate and inform disabled people before and during an emergency.

In February 2011, U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall in California ruled the emergency response plan for the city of Los Angeles violated the ADA. Disability-rights groups sued the city in 2009.

“Because of the city’s failure to address their unique needs, individuals with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to harm in the event on an emergency or disaster,” Marshall wrote in her ruling.

Aaron Gallaher, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said emergency-planning agencies closely followed damage from Hurricane Sandy and the New York disaster lawsuit ruling.

“When things like that happen, every emergency management agency becomes introspective,” Gallaher said. “It didn’t change what we were doing, but it did cause us to be a little more self-scrutinizing.”

Michael McManus of Drinker Biddle & Reath and lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit filed this week, said the District—which was a target on 9/11—is at risk for disasters.

“If you had ever told me I was going to be truly scared to die on the 11th floor of my office building on 15th Street, I would have told you you were crazy,” McManus said. “I never expected to see an earthquake in Washington. … But that happened.” (An earthquake rattled the Washington metro area in August 2011.)

McManus expects other cities to adopt disability-friendly plans after rulings in Los Angeles, New York and D.C.’s pending suit, he said.

“Not a lot of additional resources need to be spent, Just time and attention,” he said. “There is no consideration given to disabled people.”