Disabled Angelenos Sue City for Failing to Make Sidewalks Accessible to Everyone

Some years ago now, Nicole Fahmie was trying to cross the street from her apartment to the Howard Hughes Center (near the Marina), where she wanted to see a movie.

However, being as there was no curb dip to allow her motorized wheelchair up onto the sidewalk, she had to use side streets, where cars were whizzing past at 30 MPH. It was a life-threatening scene -- one she'd become accustomed to, but was no less frightened by.

But when Fahmie called the city about fixing her curbs, she was told, "We'll get to them when we can get to them."

All this, according to her lawyer, Mike Arias -- whose firm, Arias Ozzello & Gignac LLP, happens to fill an office at the Howard Hughes Center, across from Fahmie's apartment.

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Arias says he could literally visualize her plight when she came to him for help.

So they signed onto a class-action lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles for failing to bring curbs and crosswalks up to legal code. The suit includes nine other plaintiffs, and will end up costing the city around $85 million.

Of course, this is money (derived from two different California taxes) that was supposed to be set aside for handicap-accessible renovations, anyway. But Arias says the decision to ease the daily commute of the less-than-able is often not a top concern of local politicians.

"It's a matter of resources," he says, noting that lawsuits like these are fairly common in cities throughout California and the U.S. "When administrators are making tough decisions, they have priorities."

That doesn't make their priorities legal. Under California code:

Persons with disabilities are entitled to full and equal access to places of accommodation, transportation carriers, lodging places, recreation and amusement facilities, and other business establishments where the general public is invited.

Once the class-action settlement is finalized by a Superior Court judge (hopefully in October, unless anyone brings up any major complaints in the meantime), the city will be required to correct $4 million worth of walk-/wheelways that aren't up to code every year.

And there are definitely enough fix-its to go around. You think it's hard to walk in L.A.? Imagine having to walk without being able to walk in L.A.

Julie Mehrban, another attorney involved in the case, says the "whole thing started in 2006," and has morphed in many ways since then. But both she and Arias are happy with the settlement in its current form, despite the fact that personal damages have been dropped from the city's proposed payout. (Hefty attorney's fees, however, are still on the table -- all up to the judge.)

Anybody who objects to the settlement must do so by September 9. But if it's approved as is, an initial 1,000 "curb ramps or curb cuts" must be completed within a 360-day period, for $3.5 million.

Says Arias: "My approach was -- first we have to put something into place to address needs of those who need it."

Then, for the next 20 years, "the City will be required to perform certain remediation work in various areas in the City that have been designated as priority areas based," for $4 million per year, according to the court papers.

That'll take an extraordinary amount of labor and organizing. Even if it's mandated by the court, we're having a hard time picturing L.A. City Hall pulling off such a feat. In the past several years, city officials haven't completed any infrastructure of this scope in a timely and affordable way.

(Unless you count Carmageddon. But speaking of priorities in L.A.: freeways are it.)

"You and I can walk down the street very easily," says Arias. And the fact that others can't, due to a condition that's out of their hands, is "unacceptable."

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]


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