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Class Action Says NYC Housing Authority|Shafts the Disabled with Useless Elevators

BROOKLYN (CN) - A federal class action claims the New York City Housing Authority turns a blind eye to widespread violations of disability law by allowing thousands of disabled people to live in building with shoddy or useless elevators. The city posts signs in its buildings that say, "Elevators are the very life blood of a building," but plaintiff's attorney Andrew Ehrlich claims, "Unfortunately, many thousands of disabled individuals reside in NYCHA buildings without this life blood."

The class action follows the publication of the Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's September 2008 report, "Dangerous Neglect: Elevator Safety in New York City Housing Authority Buildings." The complaint states: "Borough President Stringer's report documented the fact that 75 percent of all NYCHA elevators ... received 'unsatisfactory' ratings."

Erlich says the widespread "disrepair and dysfunction" in city housing developments affects more than 7,000 people. The complaint included details from seven named plaintiffs.

Wilma Brita, a 38-year-old mother of two, has cerebral palsy and lives in an apartment designed to accommodate her wheelchair. In March, she says, she was trapped inside her apartment for three days in a row when both elevators broke down simultaneously, forcing her to cancel a doctors appointment and arrange for someone else to take her children to and from school. Another time, she says, she was trapped outside her apartment from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., until the batteries died and she had to ask someone to roll her into to her apartment.

Phyllis Gonzalez, 61, suffers from congestive heart failure, chronic asthma, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, and spinal calcification. She says her elevators break down so frequently that when they are both out of commission she calls it a "doubleheader." She can walk only short distances out of her wheelchair, and the only time she tired to walk downstairs she fell so badly she had to use a nebulizer and seek medical treatment.

A stroke survivor who has been paralyzed on the left side since 2006, 52-year-old Debbie Bacote walks with a leg brace and a walker, according to the complaint. She says she has been forced to stay home about 10 times in the past two years when her elevators were out of order, making her miss community center visits, tenant meetings and medical appointments. Once, she says, it happened when she could not cancel her visit to her doctor, and with the assistance of two friends she "spent approximately two exhausting hours struggling down six flights of stairs."

Full-time home attendants help Miriam Perlon, a 65-year-old arthritic woman whose condition is so advanced she cannot walk. In March, she says, all three of her elevators broke down simultaneously; two were eventually fixed, but one stopped again. She says that when passengers get stuck, "the lighted display inside the elevators is often broken," and they cannot report their location to the Fire Department.

Fourteen-year-old Sara Pagan was born prematurely and has only one functional lung. Her 7-year-old brother Rayven Cabreja has Blount's disease, which causes bow-leggedness. Their mother says she had to find a friend's place where they could stay overnight when their elevators broke down last December. Months before that, she says, her son was trapped at home alone with his sister for two days while she and her daughter stayed at a friend's house. Another time, she says, she and her children were stuck in a dark elevator between floors until firefighters pulled them out through a hatch at the top.

Finally, the severely arthritic and asthmatic 74-year-old Annie Sadler says she lives on a ninth-floor apartment with her granddaughter. "On level ground, Ms. Sadler sometimes walks with a walker or cane, and sometimes uses an electric scooter," the complaint states. "She has a home attendant eight hours a day, seven days a week to help her with the activities of daily living." She says her doctors arrange for her transportation, but she has missed visits because the elevators make her late.

The class sued the New York City Housing Authority and its Chairman Ricardo Elías Morales, alleging violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act and New York State Human Rights Law. Plaintiffs demand injunctive relief. They are represented by Ehrlich, with Paul, Weiss & Rifkind, and Jane Greengold Stevens with the New York Legal Assistance Group.

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