By Mike Heine/The Week
(Published March 15, 2007, 9:44 p.m.)
A federal judge Wednesday dismissed Disability Rights Wisconsin's lawsuit against Walworth County, saying the disabled persons advocacy group did not have standing to bring the suit forward.
DRW was suing Walworth County over the county's plans to build a new and larger Lakeland School, a facility for children with disabilities. DRW alleged the bigger school further promoted segregation of disabled students from mainstream society and thus violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Citing two other cases, Chief Judge Rudolph T. Randa decided DRW failed to identify injury to any one person who the group said it represented.
"An association like DRW must allege an injury to at least one specific member who has been harmed by (the county board's) actions. Without an allegation of a concrete injury, there can be no confidence of 'a real need to exercise the power of judicial review'..." Randa wrote. "...DRW lacks standing to bring this action."
DRW filed the suit Aug. 2, 2006, on behalf "of all school age children with disabilities who reside in Walworth County," according to court records.
The county received Randa's decision Thursday morning.
"We're very pleased with the judge's decision," said Ron Stadler, the attorney representing Walworth County in the suit, which was filed in federal court. "From a legal perspective, it's an accurate decision. The judge did what the law compelled."
The decision couldn't have come at a better time for Walworth County, which took a risk by proceeding with construction plans in spite of the suit being left unresolved.
It went ahead with requesting bids for the construction project and received them in February. The public works committee is expected to select a general contractor at its meeting on Monday.
"The concerns we had were if we had to throw all the bids out and then get a (court) decision a few months later. We'd lose that advantage of beneficial pricing," County Administrator David Bretl said.
By bidding early in the year, before contractors had their annual work schedules filled, the county saved more than a million dollars in the bidding process, Bretl said.
The bids the county received are about $18.8 million for the school, about $3 million lower than original estimates around $22 million.
If the suit hadn't been dismissed, Walworth County would have lost the money it spent by going forward with continued architectural designs and contractor bidding.
The dismissal doesn't give the green light for shovels to go in the ground. DRW could still bring the suit back through an appellate court.
"We're reacting to it as we go along," Bretl said of the suit possibly being refilled. "(The project) is a lot closer to a green light than we were yesterday.
"We will reserve our final recommendation (to start construction) until we have discussion with our financial people and legal counsel. Certainly, we are in a much better position than we were yesterday."
Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, attorney for DRW, said he has not made a decision to appeal.
He said it's impossible for DRW to show a person who suffers injury form the existence of Lakeland School because the county has not forced anyone to attend there.
Spitzer-Resnick still believes that the expansion of the school violates ADA standards and it should be addressed. He is consulting with other disabled persons rights experts.
"What the judge is saying, in essence, is you can't get a decision on ADA (without injury) and I think he's wrong," Spitzer-Resnick said.
Lakeland School Director Tracy Moate said she has guarded excitement about the decision since she is not sure the suit is over.
"I feel the weight is not all the way off my chest, but I have some breathing room now," Moate said. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel. We were a little anxious prior to today's decision because the clock was ticking."