Court: New York Neglected Disabled in Emergencies

November 8, 2013

New York City has violated the rights of about 900,000 of its residents with disabilities by failing to accommodate for their needs during emergencies, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.

The ruling arose from a lawsuit filed in 2011 after Tropical Storm Irene, but came into sharper focus after Hurricane Sandy, when many New Yorkers with disabilities were stranded for days. The judge, Jesse M. Furman of Federal District Court in Manhattan, found that the city, through “benign neglect,” was in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The plaintiffs, which included two nonprofit groups representing people with disabilities and two individuals — a man who is blind and a woman who uses a wheelchair — sued the city after Tropical Storm Irene, which failed to do much damage in the city but nonetheless prompted a large-scale evacuation.

The lawsuit sought class-action status, and in November 2012 Judge Furman granted that request, which allowed the case to proceed on behalf of the city’s disabled population.

In his 119-page ruling, Judge Furman cited, among other things, the city’s failure to develop evacuation plans for people with disabilities in high-rise buildings. He did not suggest remedies, saying that “given the complexity and potential expense involved,” solutions to the problems would best be addressed by people with expertise in disaster preparedness and through negotiations.

He directed the parties to confer with each other and with representatives of the Justice Department if it chose to participate. In May, the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan filed a statement of interest, asserting that the city was violating federal law because its emergency management plans “do not adequately protect the rights of individuals with disabilities.”

The ruling is the first, coming after a trial, where a federal judge found that a state’s or city’s emergency preparedness violated the disabilities act, said Julia Pinover, a lawyer with Disability Rights Advocates, which represents the plaintiffs.

The judge made it clear in his ruling that if the plaintiffs and the city could not reach an agreement, he would impose remedies; he also raised the possibility of a second trial, on that issue.

The decision to grant class-action status came in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when many of the flaws in the city’s response system were made evident.

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