The Department of Justice asked a federal court yesterday to let it join the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America in its suit against the University that challenges whether Michigan Stadium meets federal accessibility standards.
In a hearing at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit scheduled for this morning, Justice Department officials will also request permission to send a team of Justice Department investigators to survey the stadium next week.
“It is critical that the United States perform this survey as soon as possible,” the Justice Department wrote in a motion filed yesterday. “The University has begun a large-scale renovation of the stadium and the work could destroy important information about the existing stadium.”
The department chose to step in after the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights rejected a compromise offered by the University of Michigan yesterday and referred its concerns to the Justice Department. The University offered in a letter sent to the office on Monday to build removable platforms around the seating bowl that would have added as many as about 300 additional wheelchair-accessible seats with different vantage points to the stadium.
According to a statement by Education Department spokeswoman Samara Yudof, the proposal was rejected by the Education Department in part because it wouldn’t have provided permanent wheelchair-accessible seating to the stadium bowl or resolved concerns about the other problems with stadium facilities.
University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said in a statement released yesterday that the University has always shown commitment to the needs of disabled fans.
“The University of Michigan is disappointed that the Department of Education has declined to negotiate a resolution to our differences and has instead elected to refer their complaint to the Department of Justice,” Cunningham wrote in a statement. “We are proud that the University has always met the seating needs of our mobility-impaired patrons, and we are resolved to maintaining and strengthening that commitment as we move forward.”
In their case, filed in April, the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America argues that the University has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not upgrading Michigan Stadium to meet ADA regulations after conducting a series of projects to replace concrete in the stadium seating bowl.
The University has argued that the projects didn’t change the stadium’s fundamental structure and therefore should be considered repairs rather than alterations. Because the Big House was built long before the ADA took effect in 1990, it is not subject to ADA regulations if no renovations have taken place.
Richard Bernstein, an attorney for the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and a University political science lecturer, said he thinks the Justice Department became involved because it could set a dangerous precedent if the University won the court battle with the group.
“If the University of Michigan is successful in being able to say that what it’s doing is a repair and not an alteration, then what you’re going to see happen is, owners of shopping centers, owners of hotels, any public venue is eventually going to say ‘Wait a minute, we’re just making repairs, we’re not altering – all we’re doing is simply making simple repairs,’ ” Bernstein said. “If you allow for that to happen, then the rights of the disabled will be tarnished forever.”
The lawsuit also says the stadium has too few wheelchair-accessible seats and that the seats are not adequately distributed throughout the stadium.
The ADA mandates that 1 percent of all total seats in structures like the stadium must be accessible to disabled patrons and requires that those seats offer a range of views and prices comparable to the seats offered to the general public.
Michigan Stadium currently has 90 wheelchair-accessible seats, all of them located behind the endzones. The renovation plans approved by the University Board of Regents included the addition of 207 more accessible seats. The plan offered by the University on Monday would add up to 300 more, depending on demand. The University would analyze need for wheelchair-accessible seating at the start of each season and install or remove disabled seating platforms accordingly.
The complaint also says many of the stadium’s facilities are inaccessible, including the bathrooms, concessions, memorabilia stands, parking and concourse ramps. University officials said earlier this week that many of those problems have been fixed since the Office of Civil Rights first raised concerns earlier this year.
Bernstein said the handling of the stadium situation by the University administration has severely damaged the University’s reputation.
“I think it’s an unmitigated and unforgivable disgrace on the part of the University of Michigan,” Bernstein said. “To be under investigation by the civil rights department of the Department of Justice? Not even just to be under investigation – to have federal agents coming onto the premises to protect evidence? That’s insane.”