MANHATTAN — A federal appeals court has overturned a ruling that would have forced a substantial number of New York City taxis to become wheelchair accessible, knocking down a decision that disability advocates had widely hailed as a landmark victory.
In rendering its decision in the case of Noel v. Taxi and Limousine Commission, the appeals court held that "nothing in the TLC’s administration of the licensing program discriminates against persons with disabilities," according to the ruling.
"Although only 231 medallions are conditioned on wheelchair accessibility, none of the medallions issued by the TLC prohibits any medallion owner from operating an accessible taxi," the ruling stated.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg applauded the court's decision.
"The court correctly found that nothing in the ADA compels the city to require that taxis be wheelchair accessible," Bloomberg said in a statement. "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."
Disability advocates and wheelchair users first brought the class-action lawsuit against the Taxi and Limousine Commission in January of 2011.
Judge George B. Daniels of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York heard arguments in the case in November. Just before Christmas, he ruled that the TLC’s lack of wheelchair accessible cabs placed it in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
Of the city’s 13,000 cabs, only about 230 are accessible for people in wheelchairs.
Daniels’ ruling would have required the city to make a "meaningful" portion of its taxi fleet accessible for those with disabilities.
But Thursday’s decision made that ruling null and void.
"We have consistently said that the TLC’s practices are in no way discriminatory and are eager to move forward with our program," TLC Commissioner David Yassky said in a statement.
"This does not diminish our continuing commitment to enhancing transportation options for persons with disabilities," Yassky added. "We look forward to working with the disability advocacy community to implement the progressive programs already in motion."
For advocates, the ruling marked a significant blow in what has been a long-running battle.
"I am very disappointed," Simi Linton, a wheelchair user and lifelong New Yorker, said in a statement.
"We live in a city with few accessible transportation options. The ability to travel throughout the city in a taxi is vital for getting to work, medical appointments, and cultural events," she added. "Persons with disabilities deserve access to this system."
Sid Wolinsky, one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said Thursday’s ruling was "only round one of what is certain to be a lengthy fight." Several other lawsuits could be brought against the city to challenge its current taxi system, he said.
"This fight for the most basic rights of seniors and persons with disabilities will continue," Wolinsky said.