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Number of accessible seats at heart of dispute; judge says Justice Dept. can join lawsuit.
November 22, 2007
DETROIT -- A federal judge Wednesday granted a U.S. Department of Justice request to join a lawsuit against the University of Michigan and cleared the way for a thorough inspection of Michigan Stadium before a $226 million renovation project gets under way.
The decision by Federal Judge Sean Cox essentially pits the U.S. government against the university in federal litigation over the number of handicap-accessible seats at the football stadium.
Federal architects will begin their inspection -- estimated to take five days -- of the football stadium Tuesday, according to lawyers on the case. They want to take measurements and photographs of University of Michigan's alleged violations of federal accessibility laws before the university begins demolition for the renovation project, according to court documents.
The University of Michigan didn't oppose the federal involvement. "We promised our full cooperation and support," U-M spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said Wednesday.
Wednesday's appearance in U.S. District Court in Detroit was part of the U.S. Justice Department's effort to compel U-M to provide more wheelchair seating areas at Michigan Stadium. U-M offers 88 wheelchair seats at the 107,000-seat stadium -- far less than 1 percent of all seating that federal law requires, federal officials argue.
To ensure compliance, the U.S. Justice Department asked to join the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America in their ongoing federal lawsuit against U-M for violations to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"The Paralyzed Veterans of America are incredibly pleased that United States Department of Justice is party and co-plaintiff in this case," said Richard Bernstein, an attorney for the veterans.
"The Department of Justice will ensure that the heart and soul of the Americans with Disabilities Act will be protected and that access for people with disabilities will be maintained not only at University of Michigan but around the nation."
The federal officials say their court action against U-M was a last resort after weeks of failed negotiations with the university. The government alleges that Michigan Stadium doesn't provide enough wheelchair seating; it doesn't have disabled seating dispersed throughout the stadium because all the seats are in the end zones; and it doesn't provide accessible toilets, concession stands, souvenir shops or parking.
U-M disagrees with these allegations. But on Monday the university proposed a compromise to increase the number of wheelchair seats in the bowl from 88 to 592 by 2010 in hopes of avoiding a showdown with the U.S. government.
The plan called for 207 new seats in the renovation project as well as 295 seats in the existing bowl by installing removable platforms around the stadium.
However, the veterans and department of justice didn't accept the plan because it didn't add enough seats, among other concerns.
"There's an enormous gulf between the number of seats the (federal government) would require in the stadium and the number of seats our ticket holders actually need," Cunningham said, noting 53 season ticket holders requested accessible seating. "The compromise we've proposed means we would greatly expand the number of accessible seats. We are only asking that if the new seats are not needed that we would be able to use them as regular bench seats."
Despite the federal government's court action, U-M hasn't wavered from its position, Cunningham said.
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