Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Baltimore restaurant settles ADA lawsuit, will make itself accessible

From The Daily Record in Baltimore:

The Donna’s café in Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon neighborhood will soon be accessible for patrons with disabilities, thanks to a long-awaited settlement with the Department of Justice.

Under terms announced Sept. 29, the 109-year-old brick building at 800 N. Charles St. will get an inclined platform lift up the stairs from the lobby to the first floor, and the bathrooms and counter area will be modified to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The settlement came none too soon for Robert Reuter, who remembers complaining to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations after being unable to get a warm beverage on a cold, rainy day in 1997.

“It’s been a long wait for that coffee,” said Reuter, a wheelchair user and activist. “It better be good.”

According to the agreement, 800 North Charles St. Limited Partnership LLLP, which owns the building, has four months to install the lift and five months to make the two first-floor bathrooms wheelchair-accessible after the necessary permits and licenses are obtained. The bathroom alterations include adding grab bars and moving the toilets and mirrors.

“I think we’ll be done with the work in perhaps as little as 100 days or less,” said Alan Hoff, the attorney for the building’s owner. Hirsch estimated the lift will cost $50,000 and said the other “cosmetic” changes are “minimal … in terms of scope and cost.”

The owners must also add signage outside the building and inside the restaurant and come up with some way for patrons of My Thai, the restaurant in the basement, to communicate with the restaurant from street level.

The Palamino Corp., which operates the restaurant, must make four changes in three months.

Charles Hirsch, the Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP attorney who represented Palamino, said the restaurant will not have to close to fix its space. Hirsch’s brother, Alan, owns the café with Donna Crivello. Donna’s also has cafes at the University of Maryland hospital, and in Charles Village, the Village of Cross Keys and Columbia.

Hoff agreed with Reuter that the period from complaint to resolution had been many years, but offered a different perspective.

“This was not an adversarial thing. This was an amicable thing,” said Hoff, of Sellman Hoff LLC, whose offices are just blocks south of Donna’s. “When we learned there were concerns about a lift, we worked for years with the Department of Justice and the Human Relations Commission to find a way to make this property accessible without creating hazards. We jumped through hoop after hoop after hoop to make this happen.”

The parties had to consult with the city Fire Department to make sure the lift did not impede the exit in the event of an emergency. This complication prevented the possibility of a lift to reach My Thai, an issue Hoff called “the biggest stumbling block in this whole thing.”

“The result was something everybody was thrilled with,” Hoff said. “This was a win-win situation for everybody.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice called the voluntary out-of-court result “a good story all around.” Alejandro Mijar, the spokesman, said there are “still thousands of restaurants out there that are not in compliance,” so the department’s Civil Rights Division welcomed the opportunity to avoid time-consuming litigation.

Reuter, however, said the building’s owners “fought and fought.”

“I think they spent more on their attorneys than it would’ve cost to fix it in the first place,” Reuter said, speculating that the matter could have been resolved a decade ago.

Reuter, a Vietnam War veteran and an engineer with Access Systems, which does accessibility work for transit systems outside Maryland, said he’s lost count of the times he’s taken formal ADA-related action.

He has sued or complained over accessibility of the Cylburn Arboretum and Mansion, A Cook’s Table in Federal Hill, and the polling place to which he was assigned in 2002. His 1998 complaint over the U.S.S. Constellation resulted in it being the first historic wooden ship to be wheelchair-accessible below deck, he said.

“I’m sort of tenacious, like a bulldog,” Reuter said. “Either that or stubborn, I’m not sure which. Take your pick.”

He cautions, however, that he only complains about establishments he wants to visit and can’t — and that he doesn’t do it for money.

“If anything I lose money,” he said. “It’s the principle of the thing.”