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Equal Rights Center v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

September 2, 2008

EQUAL RIGHTS CENTER, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Following a fairness hearing, as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e), this court approved the Settlement Agreement reached in this case [# 186] and indicated that a full explanation for its decision would be forthcoming. This court's explanation follows.

I. BACKGROUND

In 2004, the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington*fn1 and thirteen named plaintiffs brought this action against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA") on behalf of approximately 18,000 class members. The complaint alleged that MetroAccess, WMATA's public paratransit service,*fn2 failed to meet the standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12131, et seq., section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. ERC argues that plaintiff class members were subjected to arange of discriminatory behavior due to their disabilities, including missed or overly long trips; off-schedule pick-ups and arrivals; telephone reservation agents who were rude to MetroAccess customers, did not answer calls, or were otherwise poorly trained; long telephone wait times; lack of response to customer complaints; and inexperienced, poorly-trained drivers. ERC claims that such practices rendered WMATA's MetroAccess service inferior to that provided on its fixed-route bus and subway lines.

After more than three and a half years of contentious and complex litigation and six months of settlement negotiations, the parties reached a Settlement Agreement ("the Agreement") [# 177-3], which they presented to the court for class certification and final settlement approval. This court certified the class and granted preliminary approval of the Agreement on February 8, 2008 [# 180], subject to a fairness hearing held on May 22, 2008.

A. The Settlement Agreement

The Agreement grants relief of approximately $14 million to the plaintiff class. Focusing primarily on prospective and injunctive relief, the Agreement contractually requires WMATA to improve its service and to adhere to specific performance standards. In particular, the Agreement provides four forms of relief: 1) free ride coupons for active MetroAccess customers; 2) specific performance and service commitments by WMATA and MetroAccess; 3) independent monitoring of MetroAccess performance through the current and following three fiscal years; and 4) monetary compensation for the named plaintiffs and other class members who were deposed during the course of this action. The Agreement also provides for reimbursement of a portion of plaintiffs' legal fees and expenses. The court addresses each form of relief in turn.

1. Class Members Will Receive Free Ride Vouchers for Past Alleged Poor Service as Well as Any Instances of Future Poor Service

Under the Agreement, WMATA will provide ten coupons for free rides to each of the 18,665 currently-active MetroAccess customers*fn3 as compensation for the alleged past service deficiencies. Because the current cost of a MetroAccess ride is $2.50, WMATA estimates the value of the coupons to exceed $466,000. The Agreement provides that if MetroAccess customers continue to experience poor services in the future, WMATA will reimburse them by providing two free ride coupons for each late or missed trip.*fn4 Customers will also be entitled to two free ride vouchers for each "pattern of poor service"*fn5 documented, up to a maximum of twenty free ride vouchers.

2. WMATA Will Contractually Require Specific Performance Standards and Service Improvements

The Agreement focuses primarily on injunctive rather than compensatory relief because the parties agree that the class will be better served by future improvements to the MetroAccess infrastructure, rather than through monetary compensation for past alleged deficiencies. The vast majority of the settlement amount - $12 million - will result in an increase in MetroAccess's budget, divided into $4 million segments for the fiscal years 2008, 2009, and 2010, and will be used to implement over 130 recommendations proposed by a number of performance studies sponsored by plaintiffs in 2005 and 2006 [# 177-7]. These recommendations broadly address the deficiencies raised in plaintiffs' complaint, such as improving procedures for the training, staffing, and retention of MetroAccess telephone agents, procurement of additional vehicles, redesigning the customer complaint and response department, improving communication within MetroAccess departments, and reliably documenting MetroAccess performance data.

Additionally, the Agreement sets forth a comprehensive alternative dispute resolution component in order to avoid future litigation to the greatest extent possible. Disputes that arise during the Agreement period will be subject to the ADR scheme. The parties agree that, rather than a consent decree, the Agreement is to be treated as an enforceable contract, and access to the court will require the initiation of a new lawsuit alleging a breach of the contract. In consideration of the terms of the Agreement, the class members will release all claims brought in the current action and adhere to a three-year moratorium on filing similar claims in the future. The release and moratorium do not extend, however, to personal injury claims, or other specific personal claims.

3. WMATA Will Implement a Monitoring and Compliance Program at Its Expense

The Agreement provides for the hiring of two independent experts selected jointly by the parties: a data expert and a service expert. The data expert will verify the accuracy of performance data provided by WMATA and compile the information into annual reports. The data expert may propose changes to address any issues that the data suggest are not in compliance with the terms of the Agreement. The service expert*fn6 will monitor both WMATA's compliance with the terms of the Agreement and MetroAccess performance based on the reports provided by the data expert. In addition, the service expert will submit reports to the ...


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