NEW YORK -- A federal appeals court struck down a ruling Thursday that would have required New York City to give taxi licenses only to vehicles that are wheelchair accessible – disappointing disability advocates upset that fewer than 2 percent of city cabs can accommodate wheelchairs.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't require the city to demand that cabbies serve the disabled. Instead, the court ruled, in this case the ADA only bars the city Taxi & Limousine Commission from discriminating against disabled people seeking a license to drive a cab.
The law "prohibits the TLC from refusing to grant licenses to persons with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to own or operate a taxi," the justices wrote. "It does not assist persons who are consumers of the licensees' product."
The decision was a blow to disability advocates, who had heralded the lower court ruling that declared access to such services "a basic civil right."
"We're disappointed. But this is Round One of what is likely to be a lengthy battle on many fronts," said Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates, which represented some of the plaintiffs.
Wolinsky argued his group could still ultimately win the lawsuit through other arguments that weren't addressed in the appeals court ruling. But the city's disabled residents will suffer in the interim, he said.
"What's going to happen now is probably going to take many, many months and even years to decide," he said. "While that happens the New York City taxi fleet is 98.2 percent inaccessible, and that's not going to change any time in the near future."
Michelle Goldberg-Cahn, a lawyer for the city, said she believes the lower court would also find in favor of the city.
"We think that the remaining claims similarly lack merit," she said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg applauded the appeals court's decision.
"This ruling is consistent with common sense and the practical needs of both the taxi industry and the disabled, and we will continue our efforts to assist disabled riders," he said in a statement.
The ruling's outcome has no direct bearing on the city's ongoing fight to sell 2,000 taxi medallions – auctions that the city is relying upon to balance its budget that takes effect July 1. All 2,000 medallions would be exclusively for wheelchair-accessible cabs, but the sales are on hold pending the outcome of a separate court challenge.