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Lawsuit filed against Chicago Cubs alleging disability law violations

Wrigley Field’s much-heralded renovation has seemingly secured its status as a gem of the game for decades to come, but when it comes to complying with a federal law protecting access for fans with disabilities, the U.S. Attorney’s Office to Chicago said the Cubs were eliminated. .

After a year-long investigation, U.S. Attorney John Lausch’s office filed a lawsuit on Thursday alleging the team violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make Wrigley “suitably accessible” to fans who use wheelchairs. wheelchairs or have other disabilities.

The 19-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court comes nearly three years after it was revealed in a separate lawsuit that federal authorities had launched an investigation into whether the $1 billion Cubs , the five-year renovation of the century-old ballpark met the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lawsuit alleged that the extensive reconstruction of the bleachers and lower stand, dubbed the “1060 Project”, failed to provide wheelchair users with adequate sightlines, compared to standing patrons. In the lower stand, the suit says, “a wheelchair user can barely see the infield when spectators stand up – often during the most exciting parts of the game.”

In general admission areas, wheelchair seats are largely grouped together in the last row of seating sections, depending on the combination. The Cubs also failed to incorporate wheelchair seating into new upscale clubs and group seating areas, such as the Catalina Club on the upper deck and the Budweiser Patio in right field, and the design global failed to remove architectural barriers to access unchanged parts of the ballpark, according to the suit.

>>> Read the lawsuit: an American lawyer sues the Chicago Cubs for violation of the law on the handicap

The lawsuit names the Cubs and other owners and operators of the Wrigley Field facility as defendants. The government is seeking a court injunction requiring the team to correct any shortcomings at the ballpark as well as unspecified compensatory damages “in an amount appropriate for the injuries sustained.”

Cubs spokesman Julian Green said in an emailed statement that the team has been cooperating with the federal investigation and is “disappointed” with the Justice Department’s decision to prosecute.

“(We) hope the matter can be resolved out of court, but we will defend Wrigley Field and our position that it meets fan accessibility requirements,” the statement read. “The renovation of Wrigley Field significantly increased the accessibility of the ballpark and was completed in accordance with applicable law and historic preservation standards, consistent with the ballpark’s designation as a National Landmark and the City of Chicago.”

In response to the federal investigation, Green said, the Cubs have “made several offers to voluntarily improve accessible features of the ballpark, including seating, restrooms, concessions and other key accessibility features.” .

Those claims, however, were disputed by Chicago attorney David A. Cerda, who filed a lawsuit in December 2017 on behalf of his son, David F. Cerda, a Cubs fan with muscular dystrophy who uses a wheelchair. rolling.

Cerda’s lawsuit, which is pending in federal court in Chicago, alleges that the remodeled Wrigley Field made the experience significantly worse for patrons with disabilities attending a game.

“We are very pleased to see the Department of Justice take up one of the main allegations we made: that the Cubs, out of sheer greed, replaced the good ADA seats that existed with luxury seats, which excluded the ADA customers in knowing violation of ADA Rights,” the Cerda elder said Thursday.

Before the renovation, Cerda and his son often sat in an accessible seating section about 15 rows behind home plate. These seats were moved away from the field during the renovation.

Other accessible seating in the right-field bleachers and on the upper deck below the press box have been converted to premium seating, Cerda said, relegating customers with disabilities to less desirable vantage points.

“They did it for the money, for greed, for profit,” Cerda, 61, said.

Ahead of the Cubs’ game against the New York Mets on Thursday night, longtime fan Victor Pazik, who was there with his 32-year-old son Andrew, who uses a wheelchair, said he had been to Wrigley several times before and after the renovation and I never noticed any accessibility issues.

“I always thought there was adequate seating, up and down elevator access, ramps,” said Pazik, 60, of Hobart, Indiana. “It was never a problem. But that’s just my experience. »

The lawsuit filed by the Justice Department includes photos of some of the worst alleged violations of federal law, pointing to the bleacher redesign as particularly harmful to wheelchair users.

“The Cubs’ decision to group wheelchair seating on porches not only isolates wheelchair users from other fans and confines them to the worst bleacher seats, but it also prevents them from watching the game,” the lawsuit said. . “That’s because the wheelchair seats on the porches weren’t built to provide sightlines to the field above standing spectators.”

Instead, according to the lawsuit, wheelchair seating is based on a policy that “discourages but does not prevent fans in the stands from sitting and standing in the two rows immediately in front of the wheelchair spaces. “. Although the rows are marked off and the ushers are supposed to enforce the rules, spectators still wander past the seats, according to the costume.

The “Batter’s Eye” area in center field, which is covered with a mesh tarp and gets abnormally hot in the summer, has also been the subject of numerous complaints from wheelchair users, according to the suit.

The Cubs first filed a Notice of Federal Review in December 2019 in the Cerda lawsuit. At the time, an attorney representing the team wrote a letter to the judge saying the Cubs believed the redesign had “significantly increased the accessibility of the ballpark.”

The letter said compliance with the ADA “is critically important to the Cubs, as is ensuring accessibility for all fans of Wrigley Field, an aging, historic ballpark with a limited physical footprint.”

In the statement released after the lawsuit was filed on Thursday, the team said Wrigley Field “is now more accessible than ever in its 108-year history,” with 11 more elevators than before, more restrooms accessible, assistive listening technology for hearing impaired fans. , improved audio systems and “enhanced ticketing and online systems for purchasing seats, including accessible seats”.

Cerda said the 11 elevators added to the renovated Wrigley Field are needed to transport customers with disabilities away from the good seats they once enjoyed.

“They have more elevators because they need more elevators to push disabled customers up the bleachers,” he said.

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Cerda’s son, who attended his first Cubs game at 3 months old, is now 25 and continues to follow the team. On Tuesday, he attended his first game at Wrigley Field since the pandemic hit, watching the Cubs take a fifth straight loss, falling 4-2 to the Baltimore Orioles.

A native of South Sider who grew up with the Cubs, the elder Cerda started attending games at Wrigley Field at age 8 and suffered a lifetime of defeats, including the epic collapse of the team in 1969, which he witnessed from the fifth row. seats behind the first base dugout.

He never wavered in his loyalty, until he joined the battle for accessible seats.

“I became a Sox fan,” Cerda said. “I will never set foot in this place again.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

psullivan@chicagotribune.com

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Post expires at 4:24pm on Thursday July 21st, 2022