Decision by Federal Appellate Court Vindicates the Rights of Subway Riders With Disabilities

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Man in wheelchair waiting for elevator outside Grand Central Subway Station in NYC
Image: Man in wheelchair waiting for elevator outside Grand Central Subway Station in NYC (via MTA Photos/Flickr)


August 24, 2021—New York, NY—Yesterday, a unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in favor of a certified class of New Yorkers with mobility disabilities who require elevators to access the New York City subway system. The Appeals Court overturned the District Court’s order in favor of the MTA and found that there is at least a genuine dispute as to whether the MTA, by failing to maintain its few existing subway elevators, denies New Yorkers with mobility disabilities a meaningful opportunity to use the subway system. Read the decision here.

Only around 26% of the subway’s 472 stations provide stair-free access, meaning the consistent operability of the few elevators that do exist is crucial for New Yorkers who need elevators to use the subway. Yet the MTA compounds the harm caused by its overwhelmingly inaccessible system because its limited elevators break down frequently and unexpectedly. As the Appeals Court noted, “a passenger with a disability…would be unlikely to experience a week of commuting without encountering one or more inoperable elevators.” The Appeals Court also questioned the accommodations the MTA provides to passengers who are stranded by repeated outages.

The class action lawsuit was filed in April 2017, by Disability Rights Advocates and co-counsel Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP. The plaintiffs are made up of a coalition of six disability rights organizations and three individuals who use wheelchairs.

“We are thrilled the Court recognized how critical a robust elevator maintenance program is to providing access especially in the context of such an inaccessible system.” said Emily Seelenfreund, Staff Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. “The law requires examining the impact of outages on real people’s travel and it’s evident here that chronic outages make the system virtually unusable for riders with disabilities.” 

“Failure to maintain working elevators is a broken promise to people with disabilities,” said Dr. Sharon McLennon-Wier, executive director with the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York. “This ruling helps bring us one step closer to ensuring a truly accessible subway system for all regardless of disability status.

“We applaud the Second Circuit’s decision to let our case be heard, since anyone who depends on subway elevators knows they’re unreliable and that’s it’s impossible to keep track of outages,” said Joe Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled.

“Elevator maintenance matters.” said Jean Ryan of Disabled In Action New York. “There are 25 subway elevators out today. People with disabilities have a right to working elevators just as people have a right to working stairs. All our members need elevators in the subways, and we need elevators in all stations. Elevators are for everyone.”

“BILS is delighted with the Second Court’s decision.” said Brett Eisenberg, Executive Director of Bronx Independent Living Services. “It is vital that we not only have an accessible system but that it is maintained adequately.  We all deserve to be able to use the subway system and not be fearful of being stuck or stranded because of non-working elevators.”. 

“Currently in NYC there are a larger number of residents who are 65 years of age and older than 18 years and younger.” said Maria Alvarez, Executive Director of New York StateWide Senior Action Council. “It behooves the MTA to make the subways and all public transportation systems accessible to all by ensuring that its elevators are reliable.”

“Unreliable subway elevators—with 25 breakdowns per day—continue to exclude and endanger people with disabilities, more than 30 years after ADA,” said Plaintiff Sasha Blair-Goldensohn. “How long must we wait? And how many millions of dollars will the MTA spend defending this violation of our civil rights?”

“The subway is the lifeblood of the city,” said Plaintiff Chris Pangilinan, “and for New York to be accessible for everyone—including people with disabilities, parents with strollers, and anyone else needing step free access—the few elevators we have must be maintained and reliable.”

“We are pleased that the Second Circuit reversed the decision,” said Daniel Brown of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP. “All of New York City‘s residents and visitors are entitled to meaningful access to the NYC subway system as a matter of law and justice.”


About Bronx Independent Living Services (BILS):
Founded in 1983, Bronx Independent Living Services (BILS) is a consumer-based, non-profit organization providing services and advocacy for independent living for individuals with disabilities. BILS’s mission is to ensure full integration, independence, and equal opportunity for all people with disabilities by removing barriers to the social, economic, cultural, and civic life of the community. For more information, visit 

About Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID):
The Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, founded in 1956, is part of the independent living movement, which seeks to empower all people with disabilities to live full, independent lives. Our staff, composed largely of people with disabilities, offers services and runs advocacy campaigns to make housing, transportation and other aspects of daily living accessible to all. For more information, visit

About Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY):
The Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York is a leading advocate for people with disabilities in New York City. It was founded in 1978 to ensure full integration, independence and equal opportunity for all people with disabilities by removing barriers to the social, economic, cultural and civic life of the community. For more information, visit

About Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York (DIA):
Founded in 1970, Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York is a democratic, nonprofit membership organization consist primarily of and is directed by people with disabilities. DIA is a civil rights organization committed to ending discrimination against people with disabilities. DIA fully embraces the empowering motto “Nothing about us, without us!” For more information, visit

About Disability Rights Advocates (DRA):
Disability Rights Advocates is one of the leading nonprofit disability rights legal centers in the nation.  With offices in Berkeley, California and New York City, DRA’s mission is to advance equal rights for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA’s work in New York City has resulted in making half of the City’s yellow taxi fleet accessible to wheelchair users, a federal court order requiring the City to make its voting sites accessible, and a victory at trial in a class-action lawsuit challenging New York City’s failure to plan for the needs of persons with disabilities in disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. More information can be found at

About Harlem Independent Living Center (HILC):
Harlem Independent Living Center was incorporated on May 31, 1990 to provide access to independent living services to these un-served and underserved individuals and to expand the system of independent living available to all New Yorkers. HILC assists the communities of people with disabilities in achieving optimal independence through culturally and linguistically appropriate services by advocating, educating, empowering and being a community change catalyst. For more information, visit

About New York StateWide Senior Action Council:
Founded in 1972, StateWide’s mission is to achieve through united action the dignity, well-being and security of all senior citizens of New York State. StateWide is a grassroots membership organization of individual senior citizens and senior citizen clubs throughout New York State. StateWide works to achieve its mission through trainings, educational workshops, legislative advocacy, direct consumer assistance, and monitoring programs and services for the elderly of New York State.

About Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP:
Sheppard Mullin is a full-service Global 100 firm with more than 900 attorneys in 15 offices located in the United States, Europe and Asia. Since 1927, industry-leading companies have turned to Sheppard Mullin to handle corporate and technology matters, high-stakes litigation and complex financial transactions. In the U.S., the firm’s clients include almost half of the Fortune 100. For more information, please visit


Emily Seelenfreund (Disability Rights Advocates): 510-529-3429

Daniel Brown (Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP): 212-634-3095

Sasha Blair-Goldensohn (Named Plaintiff): 917-267-2457

Chris Pangilinan (Named Plaintiff): 503-888-2399