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Suit claims courthouse violates ADA

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Four defendants in cases pending before the St. Joseph Superior Court have filed a lawsuit claiming that county's courthouse is inaccessible for people with disabilities.

Filed Monday in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division, the plaintiffs in Victoria Means, Tonia Matney, and Stephen and Margaret Hummel v. St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners, et al., No. 3:10-cv-00003, allege the St. Joseph County Courthouse and Mishawaka County Services Building don't comply with federal rules and standards to ensure access to public facilities for people using wheelchairs and those with visual impairments. The plaintiffs claim the buildings violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the federal and state constitutions.

Means and Matney use wheelchairs and the Hummels have limited mobility because of health issues. The four are parties in two separate cases that have been or are in the process of coming before the St. Joseph Superior Court. The plaintiffs' attorney, Kent Hull, also has a disability that requires him to use a wheelchair.

The plaintiffs claim the courthouse and services building lack accessibility in the restrooms, elevator, witness stands, counters used by the clerks, water fountains, and in other areas. They also claim parking is an issue at these buildings.

The suit alleges the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners, St. Joseph Superior Court, and the city of South Bend have been notified of the problems but haven't done anything to remedy them.

Means and the others are seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions preventing further violations, compensatory damages, and the appointment of a special master to oversee implementation of changes to make the buildings and parking lot compliant with regulations.

Attorney Greg Fehribach, of the Fehribach Group in Indianapolis, often works on issues dealing with the ADA. He is not involved with the case against the St. Joseph County Courthouse but has mediated cases like this in the past and said this type of case is nothing new in Indiana or around the country.

"As a lawyer who's been practicing since 1986 and a wheelchair user, I've seen quite a change in physical access to courthouses and government buildings. It has absolutely improved," Fehribach said. "The interesting thing, the part that's most concerning is any time there's a case regarding a courthouse ... if someone feels that they have been denied access to a government building or courthouse in 2010, I find that very disturbing."

He said the ADA will be 20 years old soon and there are still buildings that aren't up to date, which he said is far too long for nothing to be done.

There's no grandfather clause for older buildings not to comply with the ADA, and Fehribach said limited resources are often cited as the reason why they aren't up to date. Other issues like security often are in the forefront of people's minds when updating the courthouses, but Fehribach doesn't want officials to "hide behind the veil when you don't want to accept the issue that all men and women are created equal."

"That means access to government," he said.

He's not looked at this Northern District case, but he said if the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the judge could order a timeline in which to remedy the inaccessibility, order it done immediately by an outside contractor and have the county pay, or other outcomes.

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