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Federal Court Finds City of Los Angeles Discriminates Against People with Disabilities in Emergency Plans

Press Release from DRLC (Disability Rights Legal Center) February 11, 2011

Los Angeles – In a landmark decision, which has national implications, a federal court ruled today that the City of Los Angeles violated federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, by failing to meet the needs of its residents with disabilities in planning for natural and other disasters. The ruling is the first such decision in the country.

Federal Judge Consuelo B. Marshall held: “[T]he Court finds that Plaintiffs are denied the benefits of the City's emergency preparedness program because the City's practice of failing to address the needs of individuals with disabilities discriminates against such individuals by denying them meaningful access to the City's emergency preparedness program." The Court further held that “Because of the City's failure to address their unique needs, individuals with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to harm in the event of an emergency or disaster.” The Court ordered the City within 3 weeks to meet with the plaintiffs to prepare a proposal for remedying the violations.

The Plaintiffs are represented by two prominent non-profit law firms that specialize in civil rights cases for people with disabilities: Disability Rights Advocates (“DRA”), headquartered in Berkeley, California and Disability Rights Legal Center (“DRLC”), located in Los Angeles.

The federal class action lawsuit, brought on behalf of all people with disabilities in Los Angeles, was filed in January 2009 by Plaintiffs Audrey Harthorn and Communities Actively Living Independent and Free (“CALIF”), a nonprofit independent living center located in downtown Los Angeles.

Despite the fact that Los Angeles has experienced serious disasters, the City of Los Angeles lacks adequate disaster planning for people with disabilities, such as accessible emergency shelters, plans for providing services and medication at shelters, accessible transportation and evacuation assistance as well as communication services that are  available and accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities.

Los Angeles is particularly disaster-prone and susceptible to a variety of emergencies, including earthquakes, fires, landslides, and terrorist attacks. The City experienced and suffered from the massive Northridge earthquake in 1994, as well as wildfires in 2008 and 2009.

Today's landmark ruling highlights a national problem evident during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when people with disabilities, including many seniors who were seriously ill , were left behind to die because of a lack of disability planning.  Those tragedies prompted this action on behalf of the residents of Los Angeles.

Karla Gilbride, a DRA Attorney representing the plaintiffs said, “We are pleased with the Judge's decision to ensure that L.A., which is home to more than half a million people with disabilities, plans for the safety of all of its residents.”  

Sid Wolinsky, DRA Litigation Director said, “We cannot tolerate another Katrina when disabled men, women and children were neglected. DRA and DRLC have worked with other cities such as Oakland and Richmond to develop emergency plans that include people with disabilities. There is no reason why every city in this country should not be well prepared to meet the needs of disabled people.”

“The Court's decision is not just a victory for people with disabilities and seniors but for all Los Angeles residents who need to know that our city is prepared when disaster strikes. These will be life and death issues for thousands of people with disabilities in the event of a major disaster,” stated Shawna L. Parks, DRLC's Legal Director also representing the Plaintiffs. “We are hopeful that other cities will examine their emergency preparations as a result of this lawsuit to avoid the needless loss of life during any future emergencies."

Audrey Harthorn, Plaintiff and resident of Los Angeles said, “As a wheelchair user who lives alone, I am relieved that L.A. will now consider the needs of its citizens with disabilities and that I will have a better chance of getting the help I need when the next disaster strikes.”        

Lilibeth Navarro, Executive Director of CALIF says “This is society's moral duty to people with disabilities. The Court's decision confirms what we already knew, that the City has failed to address the needs of people with disabilities in emergency planning. The City must now take action to address this critical issue.”

The court's decision can be found at

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