2013-05-16 / Front Page

Middletown settles ADA lawsuit with residents

Plaintiffs will receive $84K in damages, fees
BY KEITH HEUMILLER
Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN — The Township Committee has agreed to an $84,000 settlement with two disabled residents who filed suit against the township nearly nine years ago for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

On May 6, the committee voted to accept the terms of the settlement, which awards plaintiffs Carolyn Schwebel and Carmena Stoney a combined $20,000 in damages and $64,000 in legal fees.

“This has been a huge weight on our shoulders and very stressful at times,” said Schwebel, a Leonardo resident. “So I’m glad they have finally settled … I think it’s too little, too late. But it is something.”

Under the terms of the legally binding settlement, which was ratified by a third-party mediator earlier this month, the township does not admit to any ADA violations, but concedes that the implementation of a township wide ADA transition plan “may have been delayed due to the actions or omissions of prior administrations.”

The lawsuit, filed in June 2004, alleged that Middletown Town Hall and a number of other township-owned properties were inaccessible to people with disabilities, specifically citing bathrooms, parking lots, sidewalks and township parks.

The township and the plaintiffs originally agreed on a settlement in 2006. Under a consent order issued by U.S. District Court, the township was required to prepare and adopt a transition plan that identifies all physical barriers to residents with disabilities, and outlines the methods and costs for their removal. The order also directed the township to address ADA-compliance issues at Town Hall and to work on Tindall, Normandy, Ideal Beach, Bodman, Kunkle and Port Monmouth Beach parks at a rate of two per year.

Under the terms of the agreement, all alterations were subject to review by an expert retained by Schwebel and Stoney and paid for by the township. Shortly thereafter, Schwebel said she realized the township was not honoring the terms of the order.

“They agreed to everything they were supposed to do, but they never did it,” she said. “They resisted like mad.”

In July 2007, the court issued another consent order, requiring the township to pay $45,000 in damages and legal fees, and directing it to complete the transition plan within a year.

The court also ordered Middletown to appoint a township ADA coordinator, and directed both sides to enter binding arbitration with a third-party mediator.

In the years that followed, Schwebel said she and township officials fought over the quality of both the transition plan and the work being done.

“I thought it was very nasty,” she said. “They were wasting all this money when they could have just done this work a long time ago.”

Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger and Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.

Throughout 2011, the township worked to develop a revised transition plan, which was given a public hearing on June 20 and adopted that November. That plan, which is still in effect, outlined a prioritization schedule for necessary improvements and barrier removal through 2017, addressing such facilities as Croydon Hall, the Bayshore Recreation Center and more than two dozen township parks.

Since 2009, Middletown has allocated $100,000 per year to fund the ongoing improvements, according to township records. In 2010, the township also allocated $50,000 in parks-and-recreation funding for playground and park improvements.

Township records indicate that between 2008 and 2011, Middletown also created more than 160 wheelchair-accessible “curb cuts,” using funding from state or federal road programs.

While Township Attorney Brian Nelson declined to comment on any specifics relating to Middletown’s nine-year legal battle with Schwebel and Stoney, he said township officials are now looking to the future.

“The township is happy that this matter is finally concluded,” said Nelson, who was appointed by the committee in 2009. “The township intends to actively continue to address barriers to access for all individuals and is hopeful that our plans currently in place allow us to do this in an expeditious manner.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, the township has also appointed a dedicated ADA compliance officer, who processes and reviews residents’ complaints.

According to township records, improvements have already been completed at the township municipal complex, the cultural arts center and other facilities.

“It’s been a long saga,” Schwebel said. “But they are allocating some money and addressing a few items each year. Eventually, things will be better.”

Schwebel also sued Middletown for discrimination after the governing body refused to reappoint her to the township’s Human Rights Commission in late 2007. As part of the settlement for that lawsuit, the township did not admit to any violation, but agreed to reappoint her to the commission and pay damages and fees totaling $7,000.

As she did then, Schwebel plans on donating all of her damages from this most recent settlement to a worthy cause.

“In anticipation, we donated $5,000 to Helping Pet, a fund [established] by veterinarians for people who cannot afford medical care for their pets,” she said. “Next week, when we receive the Middletown settlement money, we will send $5,000 to the Monmouth County SPCA to help pets who were displaced by Sandy.

“Its not about the money,” she added. “I just want people to know they do have rights.”

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