A civil rights group has filed a lawsuit accusing four D.C. cab companies of discriminating against blind passengers with service dogs.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs announced the lawsuit Monday on behalf of the American Council of the Blind and one of the group’s employees, Eric Bridges.
The suit was filed against Yellow Cab Company of DC, Grand Cab, Elite Cab and Pleasant Taxi. It stems from an investigation conducted in 2013 by WUSA-9 with help from the American Council of the Blind. The station reported that the cabs they observed repeatedly discriminated against blind passengers as they tried to hail a ride.
The report featured four cab companies caught on video at various D.C. locations failing to stop for Bridges and his guide dog, a black labrador named General. Some of the cabs, after ignoring Bridges, stopped to pick up Russ Ptacek, a sighted WUSA reporter who was standing down the street.
When Ptacek asked the drivers why they hadn’t stopped for the individual with the dog, some said they hadn’t seen him or thought he was waiting for someone else.
WUSA also examined whether cabs stopped for people in wheelchairs. The station reported that of 42 cabs observed in a single day, 20 of them “either drove right past the passenger with a disability in favor of another fare, took them to the wrong location without warning, or charged an illegal extra fee.”
The lawsuit accused the cab companies of violating the District’s Human Rights Act as well as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
It continued: “The incidents alleged in this Complaint involving Mr. Bridges are only a few examples of systematic discrimination regularly experienced by blind individuals with service animals in DC.”
Paul Zukerberg, a lawyer representing Elite Cab and Pleasant Taxi, said both companies “are committed to providing every passenger with safe and convenient taxi service.”
“They do not condone discrimination in any form,” he said, “and will continue to work tirelessly to ensure persons with disabilities receive prompt and courteous taxi service.”
Messages left with the other two companies were not immediately returned.
On the day of the WUSA investigation, Bridges said the weather was particularly cool and rainy as he tried to hail a cab in front of The Capital Grille restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue and on Constitution Avenue outside the National Gallery of Art.
“Some of it was frustrating, some of it was demoralizing,” he said. “And a lot was just angering.”
Bridges said he has filed complaints with cab companies before; one in Alexandria, he said, resulted in the temporary suspension of a driver. But he has never filed a successful complaint in the District.
Without a witness who sees a driver pass him, there’s little he can do.
“A lot of the times I am traveling alone, for business, and being able to ask somebody the license plate number or even the name of the cab company, that’s all difficult to do,” he said.
Melanie Brunson, another blind would-be passenger who participated in the investigation, said she has experienced unfair treatment by cab drivers for years.
“Washington D.C. is our nation’s capital, for heaven’s sake,” said Brunson, who is executive director of the American Council of the Blind. “There are a lot of people who come here to visit who have service animals and guide dogs, and it is very frustrating for them to have difficulty getting a taxi.”
The lawsuit also cites recent studies, including a series of anonymous tests by the D.C. Taxicab Commission in 2014, that “revealed a significant number of incidents in which cabs refused to pick up blind individuals with service animals.”
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee has been working with Bridges since he filed an initial complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights in 2014. The complaint was withdrawn in favor of a lawsuit “after mediation was unsuccessful,” according to the suit.
Of about 6,500 cabs operating in D.C., 1,200 of them are operated by the four companies named in the lawsuit, according to the lawsuit.
Bridges said he wants to see “systematic change” in how companies train drivers and in how the District holds those companies accountable.
“All I want is what everyone else gets to do — to go about my day, do my business,” he said. “And I just want to successfully hail a cab without a problem.”