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Schools, not city, liable for complying with ADA

Schools, not city, liable for complying with ADA

RICHMOND, Va.—A city cannot be ordered to pay for a court-mandated retrofit of public schools to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act if the city has not been found liable for discriminating against the disabled, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In the case, Christopher Bacon et al. vs. the City of Richmond et al., the plaintiffs charged that the 2005 public schools budget for Richmond, Va., contained almost no provisions to finance modifications necessary under ADA at 56 city schools.

The school board settled the litigation out of court in a deal that was contingent on the City of Richmond, Va., providing adequate funding to cover the modification costs. In the settlement, the school board acknowledged it had failed to comply with ADA and state disability laws.

In 2005, Richmond allocated $2 million in capital improvement funds to the school board and committed to $21.6 million over the next five years.

Last year, in a summary judgment, a federal judge ordered the city to "ensure that the Richmond City Public Schools become ADA-compliant" within five years. The court, however, found that the city had not violated the ADA, because the school board had sole responsibility for bringing the schools into compliance with the act.

Failure to act

While the public schools argued that city funding was essential to the settlement, the city responded that the school board had failed since 1992 to implement modifications it knew were necessary and that the board had ample surplus funds to finance the improvements it wanted to complete the first year of a five-year plan to come into compliance with the ADA.

In its 3-0 decision on Jan. 23, a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned the district court for several reasons.

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the appeals panel noted that remedies for plaintiffs "do not exist in the abstract; rather, they flow from and are the consequence of some wrong. At its most basic, this principle limits the reach of judicial decrees to parties found liable for a legal violation."

The appeals court noted that, under Virginia law, the city has no control over how the school board spends the funds it receives from the city. Indeed, directing the school board how to spend funds would violate state law, the appeals panel noted.

The appeals panel also noted that the lower court "overlooked the fact" that state and federal agencies provide additional funding to the school board. Imposing funding requirements on Richmond alone not only "raises serious equitable concerns" but also misreads the intent of the ADA to impose liability only on those that violate the act, the federal appeals panel ruled.

Christopher Bacon et al. vs. the City of Richmond et al.; 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Richmond, Va.; No. 06-1347; Jan. 23, 2007.