By Jenny Paulson – Stephen Hamer, a Trinidad resident confined to a wheel chair and bed, who is also the admin of All Things 81082, a Facebook news page with about 9,000 likes, announced that his years-long battle with the city has finally ended in resolution with a finalized settlement between the City of Trinidad and Hamer as mandated by the courts.
Hamer said in a written statement, “I am extremely grateful to announce that my years-long fight for accessibility in Trinidad has come to a resolution.”
The legal battle began when Hamer filed a complaint with the Department of Justice in 2014, then filed a discrimination lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act in October of 2016, stating he fell multiple times out of his wheelchair while using it on Trinidad sidewalks and streets and that they need to be readily accessible and usable for disabled persons like himself.
Hamer complained that he had to use traffic lanes on the city streets, endangering him to traffic, because he couldn’t get his wheelchair onto the curbs and sidewalks to do regular errands, including trips by his wheel chair to the local post office and grocery store.
Hamer argued that the lack of accessibility affected his ability to move about town with his electric wheel chair, his only mode of transportation since he didn’t have a car and couldn’t use public transportation. In his lawsuit, he asked the courts to remedy the curbs and sidewalks and also mandate that the City of Trinidad pay him an unspecified amount of money for harm from his falls, to include attorneys fees and costs.
His lawsuit fell under the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”) which provides in pertinent part: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as de- fined in section 705(20) of this title, shall, solely by rea- son of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be sub- jected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. . . .”
In response to Hamer’s ongoing complaints, the city had starting amassing over $500,000 to $1 million in in funding to fix certain curbs, to address what the Department of Justice perceived to be the most critical repairs needed to curbs and sidewalks, but council reported that the the cost of an estimated $10 million for renovations to the entire city, would be a hardship.
The Tenth District Court ruled in defense of the City of Trinidad, stating that Hamer filed his lawsuit too late because the “statute of limitations begins to run when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the existence and cause of the injury which is the basis of his action.”
The court stated that two years and five months had passed since Hamer first complained to council and the Department of justice. This the judge said was too long of a time period and that the City, in the meantime, had established a continuity in municipal planning and was actively negotiating with the Department of Justice.
Hamer appealed the Tenth District Court’s decision and won, reversing the case and remanding further proceedings in his favor.
The higher court of the Tenth Circuit Court held that the Tenth District Court had erred by applying a different and incorrect standard violating the ADA and Rehabilitation Act which includes that “each day that it fails to remedy a noncompliant service, program, or activity. As a result, the applicable statute of limitations did not operate in its usual capacity as a firm bar to an untimely lawsuit.”
“Instead, it constrains a plaintiff’s right to relief to injuries sustained during the limitations period counting backwards from the day he or she files the lawsuit and injuries sustained while the lawsuit is pending,” the court ruled.
That court stated that if the Tenth Circuit Court was going to reconstitute Hamer’s otherwise untimely cause of action, it should have also labeled the City’s conduct as a continuing wrong to maintain consistency with its prior jurisprudence on the extension of the statute of limitations.
The City of Trinidad appealed that Tenth Circuit Court’s decision, asking the United States Court of Appeals to consider the case and overturn the decision without a trial.
The city stated that the Tenth Circuit afforded too little weight to the Department of Justice’s own oversight, and in so doing crafted the repeated violations doctrine to permit individuals with disabilities a near-perpetual cause of action. They City said the costs of repairing each and every sidewalk or curb cut within the City of Trinidad that was cracked or deficient at any point in the past two years (and at every point in the future), as demanded by Hamer, would financially cripple the City.
That court however refused to accept the case, so the Circuit Court’s decision remained the final decision of the courts, with the judge mandating that the case to proceed to trial if Hamer and the City of Trinidad couldn’t settle out of court.
The Colorado Municipal League, a Denver entity in support of city government, contributed to the City’s request for a higher ruling, asking the Supreme Court to rule on whether the repeated violations doctrine actually extends the statute of limitations for claims under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
The League stated in a report that the ruling may not just affect the City of Trinidad, but that if other court’s refer to the decision, it could functionally eliminate the statute of limitations for thousands of municipalities, special districts, and public authorities, as well as other courts throughout the US, initiating the possibility of revived claims from any disabled individual since the inception of the ADA, so long as plaintiff’s can point to a single injury on any single day.
Hamer, however, says his decision will help others in their own battles with cities, saying that he at first tried to avoid the courts hoping for resolution a long time ago.