On Tuesday, a judge nixed the City’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit to invalidate its selection of the Nissan NV200 – which is not wheelchair accessible — by a leading civil rights group. The group, Disability Rights Advocates, can now proceed in its legal effort to stop the city from ordering a custom-created vehicle that cannot accommodate people in wheelchairs.
“It’s an issue that’s not being solved politically, so I’m thrilled that we have the avenue to address it in courts,” said Julia Pinover, supervising staff attorney for DRA New York City.
“We are confident that we will prevail once the full merits are heard,” countered Connie Pankratz, deputy communications director for the NYC Law Dept.
The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge George Daniels in Manhattan came a day after taxi medallion owners began receiving letters from the Department of Justice, indicating that a federal investigation was underway as to whether the city is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney, which deals with DOJ complaints locally, said it is office policy not to discuss, or even confirm, investigations, but Gabriel Taussig, chief of New York City’s Administrative Law Division, acknowledged the probe while expressing confidence that the feds would “reach the same conclusions that we did.”
The federal investigation was triggered by a March 29 complaint sent by Assemblyman Micah Z. Kellner, D., Manhattan, to the U.S. Department of Justice. He fired off another blistering missive to the U.S. Attorney this week, alleging, among other things:
* That allowing able-bodied citizens to hail one of 13,237 cabs via a “demand responsive” system while requiring the city’s 60,000 wheelchair-bound citizens to summon one of only 232 accessible cabs via a dispatch service constitutes “a completely separate and unequal transportation system.”
* That wheelchair users have to wait an average of 34 minutes for cabs after calling for one, whereas it took a person in the street 5.4 minutes to hail a cab in midtown in one 2001 study. Waiting seven times longer “proves that this system does not meet the equivalent response time” requirements in the ADA, said Kellner.
* That it is not clear if the city’s plan “is even viable” due to user fees the TLC plans to impose on medallion owners to support the dispatch service.
Pankratz countered that even though the ADA “specifically exempts taxicabs” from any requirement that they be accessible to people with wheelchairs , the TLC is developing a program that constitutes “equivalent service.”
Advocates have said the ADA exemption for taxicabs is intended to apply only to cities where everyone uses dispatch services for cabs.
A TLC spokesman previously told amNY that a Nissan NV200 version that is wheelchair accessible would add $14,000 to the $29,000 vehicle. But Pinover said yesterday that the city has enough leverage, given the size of its order, to have the cars modified for as little as an additional $3,000.
While 1.8% of today’s fleet is wheelchair accessible (medallions for accessible cars cost less) the owners of conventional vehicles can volitionally decide to “hack up” their cars to make them accessible. “Out of the whole 13,000, only one person has chosen to do that,” said Pinover.
Pinover said “it would not be prudent” to proceed with the Nissan contract, given the Department of Justice investigation and her group’s pending litigation. Pankratz said the city is free to “continue with the process.”