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The Oakland Press
By Jerry Wolffe
August 10, 2007
Mediation attempts between lawyers representing the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, based in Novi, and the University of Michigan over adequate wheelchair seating in the Michigan Stadium have failed and the case is going to trial.
The veterans group filed suit April 17 against the university over the $226 million renovation of the 107,501-seat stadium.
The lawsuit asked the court to increase the number of wheelchair seats in the stadium from about 90 to 1,075 as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act Architectural Guidelines. The guidelines require 1 percent of seating to be wheelchair accessible.
Attorney Richard Bernstein of Farmington Hills, who represents the veterans, said negotiations between the two sides ended Wednesday.
The case is now in the first phase of trial, which is discovery in which “all relevant U-M officials,” can be deposed to make statements under oath in court on their involvement in the case, he said.
The university has argued the project is a repair and not an alteration. If it is deemed to be an alteration, the stadium would have to make 1 percent of seats in the stadium accessible to wheelchair users.
In addition, there would have to be access to such seating; accessible seats would have to be dispersed throughout the stadium, and wheelchair users would have to have independent access to restrooms and concession stands.
Both sides are barred by U.S. District Court Judge Sean F. Cox from talking about the reasons for the breakdown in talks, known as facilitation.
“Our goal is to have the same options that the general public has in seating and viewing a game,” said Mike F. Harris, veterans executive director.
Among those to be deposed are U-M Athletic Director Bill Martin, representatives from the U-M Council for Disability Concerns, contractors and architects working on the project, Board of Regent members and U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, Bernstein said.
The university was raising money from alumni by saying it was creating a new stadium via the extensive renovations while telling the court it was a repair, Bernstein said. If it is considered a repair, the additional wheelchair seating is not required under federal law.
After the estimated seven-month discovery period, plaintiffs can call witnesses in court and question them under oath about their role in the project.
“U-M President Mary Sue Coleman is going to be the last person we depose,” Bernstein said. “She’s going to have to explain her entire involvement in this project … what she knew and when she knew it under oath.”
After discovery, there will be a series of motions by both sides, Bernstein said. A bench trial is scheduled to begin before Cox in September 2008, he added.
“The Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America is fighting so that paralyzed students and paralyzed veterans can have basic civil rights and enjoy part of the U-M football experience,” Bernstein said.
U-M spokeswoman Kelly E. Cunningham has said the university “is deeply concerned about providing accessible seating for our fans.”
The university has plans to have 282 accessible seats for wheelchair users when the project is completed, she said.
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