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Federal lawsuit may have been prevented if Brooklyn taxi company was chosen

April 9, 2013 From Disability Rights Advocates
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Late last week, a federal court in New York City cleared the way for a major class action lawsuit brought by New Yorkers who use wheelchairs to challenge the “Taxi of Tomorrow.”  

Judge Daniels of the Southern District of New York District Court allowed the plaintiffs to supplement and amend their complaint to include challenges to the legality of the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s (TLC) selection of the Nissan NV200 van as the exclusive taxi vehicle of New York City for the next decade.  

The NV200 van is not accessible to New York City’s 170,000 residents with mobility disabilities who use wheelchairs.  The plaintiffs’ supplemental amended complaint alleges that use of the NV200 van as a taxi vehicle violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Marty Needelman, chief counsel to Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, noted, “This litigation is both important in working to protect the disabled and at the same time relieve them and the state of the huge respective inconvenience and cost associated with “Access-A-Ride.”

During the bidding process for car companies to manufacture the Taxi of Tomorrow, there was hope that the manufacturing would occur in Brooklyn.

The Turkish manufacturer Karsan submitted a bid to manufacture the cars in the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal. Karsan, one of three finalists for the Taxi of Tomorrow contract, was the only manufacturer pledging to build cars in America.

“For the city to award a billion-dollar contract so foreign jobs can be created would simply be wrong when the jobs can be created right here in Brooklyn as part of the mayor’s waterfront development,” Karsan’s USA President Bill Wachtel told the New York Daily News.

In addition to bringing manufacturing back to, and creating jobs in, Brooklyn, Karsan promised to manufacture taxis that would be wheelchair-accessible.  

“Had the city gone with Karsan, a company ensuring that it would make new taxi vehicles that were wheelchair-accessible, this current lawsuit would potentially be moot,” said Julie Pinover, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates.

After many years of struggling with a taxi fleet that is almost completely inaccessible to wheelchair users, a coalition of disability organizations and individuals with disabilities filed the suit in January of 2011. Plaintiffs are represented by Disability Rights Advocates, which is a non-profit legal center that specializes in class action litigation on behalf of people with disabilities.

In spite of repeated broken promises of improvement by the TLC, less than 2 percent of medallion taxis in New York City are currently accessible to wheelchair users.  With the Taxi of Tomorrow arriving on the streets in 2013 if there is no judicial action, this discriminatory taxi system will be perpetuated for the next decade.

The TLC’s agreement with Nissan to provide the official taxi vehicle requires, for the next 10 years, that unrestricted medallion holders must purchase the Nissan NV200 van but does not require that the Nissan Van include a ramp or a lift which would make it useable by wheelchair users.

Under Title III of the ADA, when a provider of taxi service purchases or leases a vehicle other than an automobile (such as a van), the vehicle is required to be accessible.  As a licensing and regulatory agency, the TLC has an obligation to issue rules that comply with the law.  

However, the TLC’s approval of the non-accessible version of the Nissan Van means that taxi medallion owners who follow the TLC’s rules will be in violation of Title III of the ADA.

“The TLC had a golden opportunity to make taxi service available to thousands of people who critically need public transportation.  However, instead, the TLC chose to affirmatively discriminate against persons with disabilities by selecting an inaccessible vehicle and by perpetuating this discrimination for the next decade,” said Mary-Lee Smith, managing attorney at Disability Rights Advocates.

“The TLC’s selection of an inaccessible van as the Taxi of Tomorrow is blatant discrimination.  It means that I will continue to be denied the opportunity to access taxi service in New York City, compromising my work and personal life and my health and well-being,” said plaintiff Simi Linton.   

“We are pleased with the judge’s decision to allow us to challenge the selection of an inaccessible van as the Taxi of Tomorrow.  Absent judicial intervention, men, women and children with disabilities will continue to be excluded from accessing New York City’s taxi fleet,” said Plaintiffs’ attorney, Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation at Disability Rights Advocates.

 –Charisma L. Miller, Esq. of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle contributed to this article

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