County, Court Settle Suit Over Access For Disabled

A lawsuit against the county of San Bernardino, San Bernardino Superior Court and Superior Court executive officer Stephen Nash that claimed the county’s courthouses are inaccessible to the disabled has been settled with an agreement by the county and the court to pay $831,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees and undertake to make improvements to accommodate the handicapped.

Though San Bernardino County and the Superior Court officials “denied and continue to deny the allegations and claims in the actions,” they agreed to make changes that would enable those with physical disabilities to better utilize entrances, emergency exits, witness stands, jury boxes and other courthouse facilities.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Riverside in 2006 by lawyers for the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles, propounded that the courthouses’ inaccessibility to people with ambulatory problems which extended to the parking lots, walkways, hallways, stairways, elevators, courtrooms, restrooms and other areas was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act

The problems were alleged to exist at the courthouses in Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville, Needles, Barstow, Big Bear, Fontana, Chino, Joshua Tree, the San Bernardino Criminal Court, its annex, and San Bernardino Civil Court, and in the Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Dependency courts.

The case was being heard by U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips in Riverside. An effort to mediate a settlement was undertaken, involving U.S. District Court Judge George H. King as a settlement officer. As part of the mediation, the county surveyed conditions at the 13 court sites and assessed the challenges those facilities presented to the handicapped. Short of going to trial, the county agreed to pay $80,000 in damages to the four surviving plaintiffs in the case – Ruthee Goldkorn, John Lonberg, Kimberly Wilder and Alfred Chichester – as well as to the estate of Michael Flippin, another plaintiff who died before the suit was settled. In addition the county and court agreed to pay another $690,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs and put up $61,000 to oversee the efforts to render the courthouses accessible.

The cost of the settlement will go well beyond the $831,000 settlement, as the county and courts have agreed to remediation plans for all 13 courthouses. According to the language of the settlement, “The individual remediation plans describe structural and programmatic steps that will be taken to ensure that the class is able to access the facilities and programs, services and activities in the subject courthouses. The terms of each remediation plan are site-specific and vary from courthouse to courthouse.”

Those improvements are to be completed within five years.

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