Two Washington County men have filed a lawsuit against the County Commission, the Sheriff’s Department and the entire 24th judicial court, alleging that they have been discriminated against because of their disabilities.
County officials say finances and historical preservation issues have kept them from fixing the problems, but that they are working on solutions.
Randy Barron and Walter Thebeau, both disabled with quadriplegia, are unable to walk independently and they rely on a wheelchair for mobility, according to court documents filed July 7 in Washington County Circuit Court. The men say they are discriminated against because neither the main courtroom in the courthouse nor the Washington County Sheriff’s Department building is wheelchair accessible.
Barron says he was denied the right to participate in jury duty because he could not get upstairs to the courtroom in his wheelchair.
Thebeau said his rights were denied because his wheelchair cannot get through the doors of the Sheriff’s Department. He realized this when he could not get inside to retrieve stolen items that belonged to him.
The men filed a petition for damages and injunctive relief against Washington County; Washington County Commissioners Robert Reed, Randy O’Neail, and Todd Moyers; Washington County Sheriff’s Department; County Clerk Janet Adams; and the 24th Judicial Circuit, which includes Washington County.
Accompanying the petition was a request that the case be heard in another county, because the plaintiffs would be unable to get upstairs to attend any hearings in the Washington County courtroom. The suit also says the men believe “…it is possible that the named State and County Defendants may have an undue influence over the inhabitants of this county.”
Last week, the court disqualified itself and the entire 24th Judicial Circuit from the case and transferred it to the Missouri Supreme Court to be reassigned to another circuit court.
According to the petition, Barron received a summons for jury duty in December from Washington County. If chosen, he would have served on the jury in the 24th Judicial Circuit from Jan. 1 through June 20.
However, Washington County Courthouse’s main courtroom on the third floor is not wheelchair accessible and can only be reached by stairs. There is no lift on the stairway, nor is there an elevator or ramp to allow wheelchair bound persons access to the courtroom.
When Barron told court officials that he is confined to a wheelchair and would need accommodations to get to the courtroom, they dismissed him from jury duty.
“I said that’s crazy,” Barron said on Tuesday. “Why shouldn’t I have the opportunity to serve on a jury?”
Barron said he cannot get up the first-floor ramp without help because it is too steep. Although some county offices are on the first floor, he has no access to those in the basement and on the second floor with the main courtroom.
Thebeau, a gun collector, received notice from police last year that they had recovered one of his guns that had been stolen. When he tried to pick up the gun, he found no wheelchair ramp or lift at the stairway in front of the building. In addition, the doorways are too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through. That means he cannot enter the building to register his guns or get a permit to have them, which impairs his fundamental rights as a citizen.
Barron and Thebeau each filed a “Charge of Discrimination” with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. In April they each received a “Notice of Right to Sue” from the Commission.
“Such letters enable them to file suit against the Washington County defendants but suit must be filed within ninety days,” said Attorney Nancy Emmel, who represents the men.
The men and Emmel tried to seek a resolution of these claims before the 90-day time limit expired, but were unable to do so. Consequently, they felt they had no choice but to file this lawsuit, Emmel explained.
The petition asks the court to order the county to immediately provide accommodations for all disabled individuals to have access to all court proceedings, county services and county business. It also asks for compensatory and punitive damages, including attorney’s fees and court costs.
Washington County Presiding Commissioner Robert Reed said the county had applied for grant money a few years ago to install an elevator. They did not receive that grant, however, they have applied for a Community Development Betterment Grant that would cover $250,000 of the $500,000 or so cost to buy and install an elevator.
“The big problem here is, it’s an old building,” Reed said. “We’ll have to take a stairway out and widen the doorways.”
Reed added that he checked on their application recently and they led him to believe the county’s grant “looks good.” He said the county has the matching money needed for the elevator project.
“If we get the grant, we’ll get it done,” he insisted.
Sheriff Andy Skiles was out of the office this week, but a spokesman at the Sheriff’s Department said the front section of the building has historical value, which makes it unclear what modifications would be acceptable. The department is seeking a solution, she said.
Emmel said the County has been in discussions with disabled members of the community, including Disabled Citizens Alliance for Independence (DCAI), about access to governmental services for several years. Last year, a lawsuit was filed in Washington County and later removed to United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. That suit alleged that inaccessible polling places in Washington County prevented voting access to disabled citizens. Washington County moved and modified its polling places in time for the November 2008 election and that suit was dismissed.
The Missouri Human Rights Act has prohibited discrimination against the disabled in places of public accommodation, including government buildings, for more than 20 years, Emmel added.
Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.