Court Says New York Neglected Disabled in Emergencies

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Published: November 7, 2013

After Hurricane Sandy, Judith Rodriguez who is blind and unable to walk, could not leave her 10th-floor Brooklyn apartment.

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.

In Manhattan, supplies had to be hoisted into an apartment in the days after the storm.

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.

In the aftermath of the storm, which caused widespread flooding and plunged much of the city into darkness for days, some of the most wrenching tales involved people with disabilities in high-rise buildings, unable to get out and waiting for help to arrive.

“Hurricane Sandy dramatically demonstrated the consequences of this failure,” Judge Furman wrote. “Plaintiffs provided substantial evidence that people with disabilities, unable to leave their buildings unassisted or to locate accessible transportation, remained trapped in high-rise buildings for days after the storm.”

After Hurricane Sandy, many in city housing projects, like the Coney Island Houses and the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, were reduced to an almost primal state of living, lacking water, heat and power.

Judith Rodriguez, who is blind and in a wheelchair, was stranded on the 10th floor of her building and had to rely on a teenager, Sharlyn Marin, to trek up 140 steps to bring her much-needed supplies.

Judge Furman cited the city’s “impressive” array of plans for dealing with “every imaginable kind of emergency.”

“The mountain of evidence and argument confirms that planning for, and responding to, emergencies and disasters is a herculean task, and that, in many — perhaps most — respects, the city has done an outstanding job,” the judge wrote. “But it also reveals that while the city’s emergency preparedness program adequately accommodates the needs of people with disabilities in some respects, it fails to do so in others.

“Most significantly, the city’s plans are inadequate to ensure that people with disabilities are able to evacuate before or during an emergency; they fail to provide sufficiently accessible shelters; and they do not sufficiently inform people with disabilities of the availability and location of accessible emergency services.”

Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates, said he hoped the city would work to help solve the problems highlighted in the case.

“I have to say that the Bloomberg administration was unfortunately resistant to working cooperatively on the issue, and we look forward with the new administration to doing something constructive because that’s what’s necessary for this very vulnerable population,” Mr. Wolinsky said.

Michael A. Cardozo, the city’s corporation counsel, said in a statement, “While we are disappointed with the court’s conclusions, we are gratified it recognized that the city’s extensive planning is impressive.”

“Planning for the needs of people with disabilities has always been and remains a priority for the city,” he said. “We are continuing to review this decision and assess our next steps.” A spokesman for Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio declined to comment on the decision.

Much of the opinion, which followed a bench trial in March, focuses on matters related to what happened in New York City during past large-scale disasters.

“The valor and sacrifice of those who have come to the aid of New Yorkers in times of emergency, from first responders to volunteers, have been nothing short of extraordinary,” Judge Furman wrote. But that, he said, does not excuse the city’s failure to assist people with disabilities.

About 11 percent of the city’s residents, 889,219 individuals, have disabilities, the opinion said. Roughly 180,000 people have a serious hearing difficulty, 210,000 have serious vision difficulties, and 535,000 have difficulty walking or climbing stairs, according to statistics the city provided.

One focus of the judge’s opinion was the city’s evacuation plans during emergencies. For the most part, he wrote, the plans “assume that people will be able to exit their buildings unassisted and that they will evacuate using public transit.” But for many people with disabilities, he said, “these assumptions are flawed.”

The evidence at trial, he wrote, showed that many such people cannot evacuate multistory buildings on their own, “particularly if a power outage has rendered elevators inoperable.”

The problem was magnified by the city’s “failure to ensure the availability of sufficient accessible transportation in the event of an emergency,” he wrote.

The plans relied only on public transportation, “the vast majority” of which was “inaccessible to people with disabilities under the best of circumstances.”

The judge noted that the city has people charged with looking out for people with disabilities, including a special-needs coordinator who works in the Office of Emergency Management. But that person, the judge added, is at the bottom of the emergency response hierarchy.

Reproduced from