By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
For nearly five years, the City of Miami Springs has refused to make sidewalks and public parking spaces near a 60-year-old disabled resident’s home wheelchair accessible. Instead, the city has engaged in a legal war with Theodore Karantsalis by claiming he waited too long in taking action against Miami Springs over making sidewalks and parking spaces accessible to the handicapped.
It appeared the city’s strategy succeeded when then-Federal Judge Ursula Ungaro last year dismissed Karantsalis’s lawsuit against Miami Springs for allegedly failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ungaro determined a four-year statute of limitations had expired for Karantalis to file his claim because he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008.
But the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eleventh Circuit recently reversed Ungaro’s ruling and remanded his case back for trial. The appeals court determined that Karantsalis’s disability progressively got worse between 2017 and 2019 to the point he could no longer walk, and that’s when the city failed to accommodate his needs.
“His ADA injury is the City’s denial of the benefits of its public services,” the Nov. 12 order said. “Stated another way, Karantsalis could not have sued the City before he lost his mobility and his ready access to and use of the City’s public services.”
Two months after the appeals court ruled, the city still hasn’t budged. “It’s really tough for me to go out of my house,” Karantsalis told Florida Bulldog in a phone interview. “I need to roll down my driveway into a busy street. It’s not safe. All I am asking is for them to fix the sidewalk.”
Matthew Dietz, a Miami lawyer specializing in disability cases who represents Karantsalis, said legal counsel for Miami Springs has indicated the city will soon fix the sidewalks and designate handicapped parking spaces at its public facilities. Dietz explained the city is doing so in another attempt to have Karantsalis’s complaint dismissed.
“If they are going to fix it then it will be moot,” Dietz said. “I have not seen any proof of it. And I have requested all the plans, all the documents and all the notes that demonstrate they are going to make the fixes.”
Dietz said the city’s current strategy is designed to avoid paying monetary damages and attorney fees to Karantsalis. “This is a common tactic by municipalities when they are sued over ADA compliance,” Dietz added.
AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT COMPLIANCE SOUGHT IN 2008
Miami Springs City Manager William Alonso told Florida Bulldog that the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Christopher Stearns, a private attorney hired by Miami Springs in the Karantsalis case, said in an email that Miami Springs takes compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act very seriously. “All of the alleged barriers identified in the plaintiff’s complaint have long been remedied,” Stearns said. “The City invites any individuals who believe that any architectural barriers exist to present them to the City’s Disability Advisory Board where they will be addressed promptly.”
About 14 years ago, when Karantsalis was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he sued Miami Springs and the Florida Department of Transportation in federal court as a member of the Miami-Dade County Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Board Committee, according to court documents. He alleged the city and the transportation department did not make public rights of way in the Miami Springs ADA compliant.
After the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office advised him he did not have legal standing to file the lawsuit as a county board member and because he had developed only minor disabilities from multiple sclerosis, Karantsalis voluntarily dismissed his complaint. At the time, he could still drive, jog and ride his bicycle, according to the appeals court order. His “MS condition did not prevent or hinder his access to” Miami Springs public facilities, the order states.
Karantsalis told Florida Bulldog he received assurances from Miami Springs officials that they would fix the sidewalks near his house, as well as other public rights of way. “At the time, the then-city attorney said he didn’t foresee a problem and that they were looking to make things right as far as ADA compliance goes,” Karantsalis said. “The city manager at the time also promised the city would do the right thing. That was more than 10 years ago.”
In 2017, Karantsalis’s multiple sclerosis began to progress rapidly – and he developed a limp and began to fall more frequently, according to the appeals court order. A year later, he relied on crutches and stability devices in order to walk. By June 2019, when his physicians discovered an increased number of brain lesions, Karantsalis began to suffer increased numbness, myoclonic jerks, and buckling knees, the appeals court order states. The same year, he was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, further limiting his ability to walk.
‘MOST OF MY DAYS IN MY ROOM’
In addition to his taking medications, doctors recommended he use a wheelchair to move around, which increasingly impacted his ability to navigate everyday life, the appeals order states. As a result, Karantsalis cannot use the sidewalks on either side of the street from his home because there are no curb cuts, according to his 2019 lawsuit. He also can’t use the city’s gymnasium because it is “improperly configured to adequately serve persons with mobility impairments,” and that Miami Springs has an “inadequate number of accessible parking spaces.”
“I spend most of my days in my room,” Karantsalis said. “My doctors encouraged me to get out. My dermatologist said it’s important for me to get a little bit of sun and my neurologist said getting in the pool would also be good for me.”
In its response to Karantsalis’s 2019 lawsuit, Miami Springs asserted he didn’t have a case because of a four-year statute of limitations. The city claimed Karantsalis knew he had multiple sclerosis since 2008, the same year he filed his first lawsuit against the city for allegedly not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ungaro, who retired from the bench in May, accepted the city’s defense and dismissed Karantsalis’s complaint on Feb. 25, 2020. She ruled that “the progression of Plaintiff’s multiple sclerosis does not change the triggering date of the statute of limitations.”
The appeals court determined otherwise. “Here, for purposes of his ADA claim and taking all allegations as true, Karantsalis’s injury did not occur until at least 2017, when his mobility decreased to the level that he could no longer readily access and use the City’s public services because of its ADA non-compliant facilities.”
Dietz, Karantsalis’s lawyer, said municipalities would rather fight than resolve an ADA lawsuit because such cases are covered by insurance carriers. “Most of these cases should be relatively simple to resolve,” Dietz said. “It’s the same attorney under the same insurance policy that represents these cases. So there is an incentive to litigate.”
The case is now before Miami federal judge Cecilia Altonaga.