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Frame v. City of Arlington

Court Rules People with Disabilities Can Sue for Safe and Usable Sidewalks

The en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit joined the 9th Circuit in ruling that cities are obliged by federal disabilities law to make sidewalks safe and usable.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to end the social and economic exclusion from society of people with disabilities. The ADA and its counterpart, the federal Rehabilitation Act, require private and public entities to provide access to facilities, structures, and activities to people with disabilities, including people with mobility impairments.

The City of Arlington, Texas, was sued by people with mobility impairments who were unable to use the sidewalks because they lack usable curb ramps. A panel of the Fifth Circuit dismissed the case, ruling that plaintiffs had no right to sue for accessible sidewalks, which it characterized as being merely gateways to actual services. The panel further found that in any event the lawsuit was time barred because it was brought more than two years after curbs were constructed.

Plaintiffs sought a rehearing before the full court of appeals. AARP's brief, filed by attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation, pointed out the reality that virtually every trip begins and ends with a sidewalk and that sidewalks are themselves a service that municipalities traditionally provide to their citizens. They are not merely a gateway to other services. Further, AARP argued, the statute of limitations does not bar a claim for access to sidewalks brought more than two years after construction, because the city has an ongoing obligation to ensure sidewalks are safe and usable.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit joined the 9th Circuit in ruling that cities are obliged by federal disabilities law to make their sidewalks safe and usable for persons with disabilities. The court agreed with AARP: "When a city decides to build or alter a sidewalk and makes that sidewalk inaccessible to individuals with disabilities without adequate justification, the city unnecessarily denies disabled individuals the benefits of its services in violation" of the ADA. As for the question of the two-year statute of limitations, the court found that the clock does not start ticking on a claim until a person is denied access to the sidewalk. The court overruled the city's argument that it might face unlimited liability, noting that "the City may avoid liability whenever it chooses simply by building sidewalks right the first time, or by fixing the original unlawful construction."

What's at Stake
The number of people over age 55 will double in the next 30 years and will account for one in five people in 2030. Preparing for an aging population includes removing barriers to accessibility – barriers in the home, as well as in the community. Last year, the State of California settled similar lawsuits brought in state and federal court (co-counseled by attorneys at AARP Foundation Litigation) by agreeing to expand accessibility of its sidewalks and roadways.

Case Status
Frame v. City of Arlington, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, returns to federal district court but has now been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Find the most recent cases in which AFL has advocated in courts nationwide for the rights of older persons, and filed AARP’s amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs that help courts decide precedent-setting cases.

Strengthening Law and Policy through
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Our legal advocacy initiatives  - conducted by AARP Foundation Litigation (AFL) - reflect more than 15 years of work in federal and state courts across the country. Through our efforts, we support the Foundation’s four priority areas: Hunger, Income, Housing and Isolation, and ensure that those 50 and older have a voice in the laws and policies that affect their daily lives.