City in settlement talks with disabled Philadelphians in suit over dangerous sidewalks

Cars are parked on the sidewalk on Fletcher Street in Philadelphia’s East Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Cars are parked on the sidewalk on Fletcher Street in Philadelphia’s East Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The city of Philadelphia has entered settlement talks with disabled Philadelphians who sued the city in 2019 over the inaccessibility of the city’s sidewalks.

Four Philadelphians with disabilities and the advocacy organizations Liberty Resources, Disabled in Action of Pennsylvania, Inc., and Philadelphia ADAPT claimed broken curb cuts, disintegrating sidewalks and illegally parked cars in Philly make it difficult and dangerous for the thousands of residents with disabilities to travel around the city. They argued the city’s failure to provide accessible pedestrian rights of way violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the nearly three years since the lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, both the plaintiffs and the city have won victories. In July 2020, federal judge Harvey Bartle III dismissed two points in the case, at the city’s request. But he also granted the plaintiffs’ bid for class action status, meaning they’re now fighting on behalf of all “persons with disabilities or impairments that affect their mobility,” including those who use wheelchairs or are blind, and use Philly’s pedestrian rights of way.

“Our hope is that we will achieve an agreement to install new curb cuts and to remediate the ones that need to be remediated,” said plaintiffs’ attorney David Ferleger in an interview Tuesday. He declined to comment further on the content of the settlement talks.

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The case was scheduled for a bench trial in early February of this year, and the advocates were prepared with expert witnesses and exhibits, Ferleger said. But court records show two weeks before the trial was set to begin, the judge put trial deadlines on pause, so the advocates and city could work toward a settlement agreement.

The parties submitted a joint settlement update to the court late last month, which said the parties had exchanged drafts of a final settlement agreement, but needed more time to finish it. They promised another status report at the end of March, at which point they expect to say whether they can settle the case or need to go to trial.

In an email Wednesday, city spokesperson Kevin Lessard said the city does not comment while settlement negotiations are ongoing. Ferleger, representing Philadelphians with mobility-related disabilities, stopped short of saying he’s hopeful the parties will resolve the case without a trial.

“The case is not settled ‘til it’s settled,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen.”

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A barrier to ‘engaging in civic life’

Cities across the country are being sued over the state of their sidewalks. Lawsuits similar to the one in Philadelphia have been filed in cities like San Francisco, Atlanta and Baltimore in recent years. In 2017, Seattle agreed to fix or install tens of thousands of curb ramps — expected to cost nearly $300 million — in order to settle a federal class action lawsuit there.

In Philadelphia, the advocates claimed a decades-long civil rights violation in which the city disregarded its obligations under federal accessibility laws.

“Because Philadelphia’s pedestrian rights of way — including curb ramps, sidewalks, crosswalks, pedestrian crossings, and other walkways — are rife with barriers, people with disabilities that affect their mobility cannot travel freely around Philadelphia, hindering their right to work, study, socialize, volunteer, worship, and engage in civic life,” the 2019 complaint reads.

The complaint also calls out improper snow removal, construction without safe alternative routes, potholes and “fake curb cuts,” where concrete is just poured to fill the space between the curb and the street. These and other barriers not only impede independent travel for people with mobility-related disabilities, the plaintiffs argued, but they’ve caused several of the plaintiffs to get hurt falling out of wheelchairs or tripping over obstacles.

The plaintiffs claimed the city not only violated the ADA, but failed to comply with a court order from the 1990s requiring the city to install curb ramps or slopes whenever it resurfaces a street — moving instead to a request-based system in 2014.

The city “recognizes the importance” of the ADA in ensuring residents with disabilities have “meaningful access to public services, programs, and activities,” but argued in a motion to dismiss part of the case in 2020 that the plaintiffs wrongly lumped the city’s existing pedestrian facilities into a “program” in order to trigger the ADA’s “program access” regulations. Judge Bartle did dismiss this part of the suit.

The plaintiffs are not seeking money, but want the city to do a comprehensive evaluation of its sidewalks and make a plan to bring them into ADA compliance.

Neither Ferleger nor city spokespeople would say which solutions are on the table in the settlement talks.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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