by Melanie Brunson
Two years ago, ACB’s director of external relations and policy, Eric Bridges, and I participated in an undercover investigation by a local television station into the practices of taxi drivers in Washington, D.C. During this investigation, a significant number of taxi drivers were caught on video passing by people who were accompanied by guide dogs and stopping for a sighted passenger standing a short distance down the street. During the intervening months, ACB has tried to work with local officials and cab companies to address the concerns raised by this video footage. However, those efforts have not been successful.
As a result, both Eric Bridges, as an individual who was repeatedly denied transportation by drivers from four different cab companies, and ACB, on behalf of its members who are guide dog users, have decided to sue the four cab companies in question. Suit was filed in the D.C. Superior Court on March 16, 2015. On the same day, a press release was circulated detailing the circumstances that led to this action, and outlining the violations of both federal and District of Columbia law that are alleged in the complaint. The release is below.
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, American Council of the Blind and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP File Lawsuit Against D.C. Taxicab Companies for Refusing to Pick Up Blind Passengers with Service Animals
Matthew Handley, Director of Litigation, Washington Lawyers’ Committee, firstname.lastname@example.org; (202) 319-1000
Melanie Brunson, Executive Director, American Council of the Blind, email@example.com; (202) 467-5081
Matthew MacLean, Partner, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, firstname.lastname@example.org; (202) 663-8183
WASHINGTON (March 16, 2015) – The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, LLP announced today that they have filed a lawsuit on behalf of Eric Bridges and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) against four taxicab companies in the District of Columbia for discriminatory practices against visually impaired individuals accompanied by service animals.
The complaint, filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, alleges that Yellow Cab of D.C., Grand Cab, Elite Cab, and Pleasant Taxi all engaged in discriminatory practices when their drivers failed to pick up Eric Bridges, an ACB employee and member, who was hailing a cab with his service dog, General. This discriminatory treatment is all too common for blind and low-vision passengers who use service animals. As soon as taxi drivers see the service animal, they frequently drive by or refuse to pick up the passenger outright.
Matthew Handley, Director of Litigation at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, commented, “The incidents alleged in the complaint are just a few examples of the systemic discrimination that blind individuals with service animals face on a daily basis. Like anyone else, the blind depend on taxis and public transportation to get to work, meetings, and other daily activities. Equal access to public transportation and transportation services is a fundamental right under the D.C. Human Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. The cab company defendants have all contributed to this systemic discrimination and illegal activity by engaging in, and allowing their drivers to engage in, a pattern and practice of discrimination. This is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.”
Said plaintiff Eric Bridges, director of external relations and policy at the American Council of the Blind: “I often use taxis for business and personal travel. It is upsetting to have to stand outside on a cold, hot, or wet day and wait 40 minutes for a cab to stop for you simply because they don’t like your professionally trained dog, which is a mobility aid for the blind. Furthermore, not being able to see who is deliberately passing you by and report the incident because you can’t see the cab number or driver is frustrating. I am so glad that the filming done by WUSA9 has brought this issue into the public eye.”
Added ACB executive director Melanie Brunson, “The American Council of the Blind is glad to be a part of this lawsuit on behalf of the blind in the District. People come to D.C. from all over the country to attend conferences, advocate on the Hill, and as tourists. D.C. should be the gold standard for equal treatment and opportunity, including access to transportation services for the blind.”
In 2010, the Equal Rights Center (ERC), a national non-profit civil rights organization in D.C., completed a study of taxicab hauling practices for blind individuals entitled, The Equal Rights Center, “No Dogs Allowed: Discrimination by D.C. Taxicabs against People who use Service Dogs” (2010) (www.equalrightscenter.org/site/DocServer/Taxicab_Report.pdf?docID=242). The ERC report concluded that there is a 50% rate of refusal of service for blind individuals with service dogs in D.C. The ERC report further concluded that this discriminatory conduct requires a three-pronged response: periodic testing to ensure compliance by drivers, training of drivers and certifications that they will comply with the law, and enforcement of penalties against drivers and their taxicab companies for violations.
Taxicab companies are prohibited under federal and state law from discriminating on the basis of a disability such as blindness. Drivers are explicitly prohibited from refusing to pick up passengers with service animals. The complaint is based on only four incidents caught on camera by WUSA Channel 9 in a report on discrimination by taxicabs in the District of Columbia. The drivers at issue were videotaped passing Mr. Bridges and his service animal and stopping for an adjacent passenger who was sighted and did not have a dog accompanying him. The blatant discrimination seen on these videos is particularly shocking because blind individuals cannot see it themselves, nor can they identify the drivers or cabs that are passing them by.
Among other remedies, the lawsuit seeks to establish an annual random testing protocol for taxicabs in the District of Columbia. It cites recent operations run by the D.C. Taxicab Commission, the Anonymous Riders Program, which revealed systemic discrimination against blind individuals with service animals in the District.
Pillsbury became involved in the case through the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. The committee became aware of the case when Mr. Bridges contacted the committee after initially filing administrative complaints with the D.C. Office of Human Rights.
Copies of the complaint are available online at www.washlaw.org
About the Washington Lawyers’ Committee:
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs has represented both individuals and groups seeking to vindicate their civil rights for over 45 years. It has handled over 5,000 civil rights cases in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other aspects of urban life. It represents people with claims of discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, disability, age, religion, and sexual orientation. Leveraging its own broad expertise in discrimination litigation with the resources of Washington, D.C.’s private bar, the committee’s litigation efforts have become nationally known for landmark court victories, record judgments, and precedent-setting consent decrees. Its capacity to mobilize the private bar has made it possible for the committee to provide its clients with more than 50,000 hours of quality legal representation every year. For more information, visit www.washlaw.org; write to: Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 11 Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036; phone (202) 319-1000; or fax (202) 319-1010.
About American Council of the Blind:
The American Council of the Blind is the largest consumer-based organization of blind and visually impaired Americans advocating for the rights of blind Americans. Comprised of more than 70 affiliates across the United States, the organization is dedicated to making it possible for blind and visually impaired Americans to participate fully in all aspects of American society. For more information, visit www.acb.org; write to American Council of the Blind, 2200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 650, Arlington, VA 22201; phone (202) 467-5081; or fax (703) 465-5085.
About Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, LLP:
Pillsbury is a full-service law firm with an industry focus on energy and natural resources, financial services including financial institutions, real estate and construction, and technology. Based in the world’s major financial, technology and energy centers, Pillsbury counsels clients on global business, regulatory and litigation matters. We work in multidisciplinary teams that allow us to understand our clients’ objectives, anticipate trends and bring a 360-degree perspective to complex business and legal issues — helping clients to take greater advantage of new opportunities, meet and exceed their objectives and better mitigate risk. This collaborative work style helps produce the results our clients seek.