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Phillip Freeman of northwest Baltimore is a plaintiff in a federal class action lawsuit has been filed against the Maryland Transit Administration by users who use the agency's mobility service, claiming it inadequately meets their needs in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Phillip Freeman of northwest Baltimore is a plaintiff in a federal class action lawsuit has been filed against the Maryland Transit Administration by users who use the agency's mobility service, claiming it inadequately meets their needs in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the Maryland Transit Administration on behalf of thousands of riders with disabilities, alleging the agency's federally mandated paratransit service is woefully unreliable and inaccessible.

Users with serious illnesses and other physical and mental disabilities are routinely picked up and dropped off late for critical medical appointments by MTA's Mobility/Paratransit Service, the lawsuit says. They are often put on hold for long periods of time when trying to make service appointments by phone and some have been denied service or had their access revoked with little explanation, the lawsuit says.

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Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities must be accommodated with paratransit options if their disabilities prevent them from using other mass transit options.

The failings of the MTA's paratransit program have caused "major hardship and disruption" in the lives of four plaintiffs listed on the complaint and potentially tens of thousands of others who use the service, according to attorneys with the Maryland Disability Law Center and the AARP Foundation, who filed the complaint last week in federal court in Baltimore.

"People need reliable access to paratransit to get to work, life-saving medical appointments, and other critical life activities," said Lauren Young, the law center's litigation director, in a statement.

"Without access to paratransit, older people may become isolated instead of remaining active and engaged in their communities," said Julie Nepveu, a senior attorney with the AARP Foundation.

The attorneys cited a Federal Transit Administration report released last month that gave the MTA 60 days to address dozens of similar administrative and operational "deficiencies" it found with the MTA's Mobility service. During one sample week, for instance, the report found Mobility users were dropped off late for appointments nearly 30 percent of the time.

Paul Shepard, an MTA spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit, which he said is "under legal review" by the attorney general's office. He also declined to comment on the FTA report, which said more than 1.5 million Mobility passenger trips were conducted in fiscal 2014.

The MTA charges users $1.85 for each one-way trip, which cost it an estimated $43.30 each in 2013.

The federal report credited the MTA with providing the service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and for its ability to offer most pickups or drop-offs within 30 minutes of requested times. But the report also found the MTA lacks clear standards for on-time drop-off performance and relies on administrative judges without a clear understanding of disability law to make decisions on individual users' program eligibility.

The lawsuit does not seek financial payouts by the state, other than to cover the plaintiffs' attorney and court fees, but demands the MTA take immediate steps to broaden access to its service and ensure reliability.

It also calls on the agency to stop denying or removing "Mobility" access from individuals based on what it says are flawed assessments of their ability to use standard bus and transit services — as allegedly happened to the lead plaintiff, Phillip Freeman, a 51-year-old Baltimore resident who has gout and is in end-stage renal failure.

Freeman, who requires dialysis three times a week, received Mobility services from 2011 through 2014, but his eligibility was questioned last year after he acknowledged using standard bus routes at times when he felt well enough to do so, the lawsuit says.

In August, Freeman was required by MTA officials to perform a "functional assessment" in which he had to perform tasks "that replicate traveling to or boarding and disembarking" from fixed bus routes. During that assessment, he immediately began to feel ill.

His blood pressure spiked and the assessor eventually stopped the assessment, calling paramedics in to attend to Freeman. Nonetheless, he later was denied continued access to Mobility services for failing to "present sufficient evidence" that his disability prevented him from using standard transit services, the lawsuit says.

In an interview, Freeman said the system has failed him, and that MTA officials have treated him with little compassion or respect.

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"I just had the impression that they gave me a look and treated me like I wasn't sick at all, like I was just playing or acting," he said.

Another plaintiff in the case, Deborah Benaderet, a 64-year-old Baltimore resident with psychiatric disabilities, received Mobility services for 10 years before being denied recertification in 2013, the lawsuit says.

Both the other named plaintiffs — Danielle Phelps, a 38-year-old Towson resident who has a neurological disability, and Floyd Hartley, a 63-year-old Baltimore resident who has juvenile-onset rheumatoid arthritis — use wheelchairs and rely on Mobility services to get around, but say they have had difficulty scheduling appointments through the call center, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims the inadequacy of Mobility services amounts to discrimination under the ADA and other federal laws, and names outgoing Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith Jr., MTA Administrator Robert L. Smith and MTA Mobility Director Daniel O'Reilly as defendants.

The MTA contracts its Mobility service out to three different companies, none of which could be reached for comment on Wednesday.

A 2012 audit of the service by the state Office of Legislative Affairs found the program failed to properly vet many users of the program, finding inadequate documentation for all 30 participants reviewed.

Freeman said he hopes his taking a stand will quell the fear he and other patients feel due to uncertainty as to whether Mobility services will get them to their medical appointments.

"It's like they're saying, 'If we feel like giving [Mobility services] to you, we'll give it to you, but if we don't feel like you fit the grade or you don't need it, we'll kick you out,'" he said. "That's not what you want to hear when your life depends on it."

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