Federal Judge Rules New York City’s Inadequate Disaster Plans Discriminate Against Hundreds of Thousands of New Yorkers with Disabilities

Federal Judge Rules New York City’s Inadequate Disaster Plans Discriminate Against Hundreds of Thousands of New Yorkers with Disabilities

New York, NY – A Federal Court ruled today that New York City discriminated against people with disabilities in its failure to plan for their needs in large scale disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. This major victory for hundreds of thousands of children, women, men, and seniors with disabilities is expected to have national implications. The decision is attached.

At the trial witnesses with disabilities testified about the harm they experienced in Hurricane Sandy – which struck New York on October 29, 2012 – and Hurricane Irene. In addition, expert witnesses testified about major deficiencies in the City’s planning for a wide range of emergencies, including such events as explosions, terrorist attacks, and hurricanes. City officials admitted at trial that there were no emergency plans specific to evacuating people with disabilities during disasters.

Plaintiffs are represented by Disability Rights Advocates, a national non-profit legal center with offices in California and New York City that specializes in major cases on behalf of persons with disabilities, and Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP. The suit was brought by Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID), Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY), Gregory D. Bell and Tania Morales.

The federal class action lawsuit was filed in September of 2011, more than a year before Hurricane Sandy. The class of 900,000 New York residents with disabilities includes people with vision, hearing, mobility, and mental disabilities.

The case went to trial in March 2013 – the first of its kind in the country. The trial demonstrated that disabled and elderly New Yorkers suffered needlessly in recent hurricanes because of the City’s lack of planning for their needs. Evidence at trial demonstrated that New York City: (1) Has no system to evacuate large numbers of people with disabilities trapped in high-rise buildings. (2) It does not know which emergency shelters are wheelchair accessible and affirmatively tells people with disabilities their needs will not be met at shelters. The City also has (3) no protocol to address the needs of most people with disabilities in power outages and lacks reliable and effective communication systems. The City also (4) relies largely on inaccessible public transportation for emergency evacuation and has major deficiencies for this population in its recovery plans.

In May, the United States Department of Justice filed a brief supporting Plaintiffs’ claims in the lawsuit.

Despite the lessons of 9/11 and an increasing number of weather emergencies, New York City refused to address its deficient emergency planning. Its carelessness endangered the health and safety of seniors, children, women, and men with disabilities in Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

Joan Peters, Executive Director of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID), an organizational plaintiff, commented: “Today’s ruling marks a historic victory for New Yorkers with disabilities whose very lives, health, and safety will now be accounted for in disasters.”

Susan Dooha, Executive Director of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY), one of the organizational plaintiffs, said: “For over a decade we have warned the City about its failure to adequately plan for people with disabilities in emergencies and the harm that that failure brings. Today’s decision means that all New Yorkers, with or without disabilities, can look to their City to plan for their needs for accessibility during disasters and emergencies.”

Plaintiff Tania Morales is a 26-year-old resident of Brooklyn who began using a wheelchair at the age of 15.  She commented: “It’s such a relief to know that the City will start to have emergency plans for people like me who use wheelchairs and people with all types of disabilities. During Hurricane Irene, I managed to get to a shelter but there was a locked gate surrounding the wheelchair entrance. I couldn’t get inside. With no place to go and no emergency information about what I should do, I was terrified and forced to return home in the storm.”

Plaintiff Gregory Bell, who is blind and has diabetes, commented: “Today’s decision will allow people with chronic health conditions like blindness and diabetes to receive emergency information essential for their health and well-being. Receiving information about evacuation zones in formats that blind and visually impaired people can read is critical for evacuating in disasters. Knowing which shelters provide refrigeration for life-sustaining medications and diabetic meals is the difference between life and death for people with diabetes.”

 Sid Wolinsky, Director of Litigation, Disability Rights Advocates, commented: “The Court’s ruling today is a landmark victory for New York City’s residents with disabilities. For the first time, they will be provided with an equal chance of survival during disasters. No person should be left behind to suffer or die during emergencies because of the incompetence of the City’s bureaucracy.”

 Disability Rights Advocates is the non-profit legal center that won a court order forcing the New York Board of Elections to remove multiple access barriers at its voter poll-sites. DRA is also challenging NYC’s Taxi of Tomorrow, a taxi that is not wheelchair accessible.  DRA has filed a suit against Beth Israel and its parent Continuum, alleging substandard medical treatment for disabled patients. dralegal.org

Dan Brown
, Sheppard Mullin Richter and Hampton

Julia Pinover, Disability Rights Advocates

Rebecca Williford, Disability Rights Advocates
(510) 665-8644

Sid Wolinsky, Director of Litigation,
Disability Rights Advocates