Ninth Circuit Win for Students with Disabilities Seeking Equal Access to West Los Angeles College
May 7,2020 – Los Angeles, CA – On April 30, 2020, the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of students with disabilities seeking access to West Los Angeles College (WLAC), part of the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD), the largest District in the country.
The Ninth Circuit found that requiring students with disabilities to access their education in ways that remained after the shuttle was stopped was an unfair burden on them because of their disabilities. As a result, the District Court will need to evaluate what reasonable steps WLAC can take to provide equal access, such as the shuttle service that the college used previously to provide access to all students, staff, and visitors with disabilities.
The original lawsuit was filed in 2016 on behalf of three students with mobility disabilities.
These students struggled to access classes and campus services when WLAC abruptly stopped providing shuttle services that these students depended on. WLAC is located on a hill with steep, uneven terrain that people with mobility disabilities experience difficulty traversing. While dozens of community colleges and universities in California provide a shuttle service to assist students with disabilities, LACCD has refused to restore the campus shuttle service or to provide any other form of on-campus transportation assistance for students whose disabilities make it difficult for them to utilize campus pedestrian routes.
Without the shuttle service, plaintiffs experienced extreme hardship, humiliation, injury, and the risk of being unable to complete their education. Charles Guerra, a U.S. army veteran, was injured and hospitalized multiple times as a result of his falls on campus. “We’re fighting for access not just for ourselves, but for everyone with a disability who wants to go to college,” he said. “I have a classmate who struggles for 45 minutes just to walk to her math class on campus. If school officials understood what it was like for all of us with disabilities, they would do the right thing.”
After a multi-day trial, a U.S. district court issued a judgment in favor of WLAC. That judgement was reversed by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The students were represented by Disability Rights California, Disability Rights Advocates, and pro bono co-counsel at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.
“This is an important reminder by the Ninth Circuit that unequal access is not good enough,” said Disability Rights California attorney Autumn Elliott, who argued the case before the Ninth Circuit on behalf of the three students. “The Americans with Disabilities Act requires community colleges to give everyone an equal opportunity to obtain an education. Now that the Ninth Circuit has spoken, we hope that WLAC will finally do just that.”
Disability Rights California (DRC): Is the agency designated under federal law to protect and advocate for the rights of Californians with disabilities. The mission of DRC is to advance the rights, dignity, equal opportunities, and choices for all people with disabilities. For more information visit: https://www.disabilityrightsca.org.
About Disability Rights Advocates (DRA): With offices in New York and California, Disability Rights Advocates is the leading nonprofit disability rights legal center in the nation. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA represents people with all types of disabilities in complex, system-changing, class action cases. DRA is proud to have upheld the promise of the ADA since our inception. Thanks to DRA’s precedent-setting work, people with disabilities across the country have dramatically improved access to education, health care, employment, transportation, disaster preparedness planning, voting, and housing. For more information, visit https://dralegal.org/.