Fire coming out of manhole at New Rochelle High School (File Photo)

Federal Court Dismisses Motion by New Rochelle School District Against New Rochelle Fire Department

Written By: Robert Cox

WHITE PLAINS, NY — The United States District Court Southern District of New York in White Plains, New York has granted a motion to dismiss the an Amended Third-Party Complaint filed by the New Rochelle Fire Department against the the City School District of New Rochelle. The motion sought indemnification by the fire department of the school district in a case brought by a disabled former New Rochelle High School Student and her father against the District following a 2013 fire at New Rochelle High School.

In a 12-page motion dated December 18, United States District Court Judge Cathy Seibel granted the motion to dismiss on the grounds that contrary to claims by lawyers for the District there is no right to indemnification under New York State under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

We are pleased that the Court has dismissed the third party action brought by the School District against the New Rochelle Fire Department,” said New Rochelle City Manager Charles B. Strome. “As we argued in our motion, this action has no merit.

At a pre-motion conference on April 21, 2015 to discuss the District’s original Third-Party Complaint, Judge Seibel advised that the School District should “dig a little more” to find cases supporting its argument that indemnification or contribution is available under state law in ADA or Rehabilitation Act cases. Judge Seibel ruling on the subsequent Amended Third-Party Complaint on December 18, 2015, found the District failed to meet this requirement so it was not necessary to rule on other aspects of the motion.

The City School District of New Rochelle filed an Amended Third-Party Complaint against the New Rochelle Fire Department on May 15, 2015 seeking indemnification and contribution from the Fire Department in a case brought by Jennifer Feltenstein and her father, Richard Feltenstein. Jennifer suffers from cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound. She attended New Rochelle High School from September 2009 through June 2013.

According to the motion filed by the District, “on January 31, 2013, at approximately 9:07 a.m., Jennifer was on the third floor of the School when someone “heard a loud noise and saw a manhole cover lifted off the ground,” prompting them to contact the New Rochelle Fire Department. Around 9:12 a.m., the Fire Department arrived at the School and found a “smoke condition in the electrical room and the odor of smoke coming from a vault grate by the outside sidewalk,” which led to the triggering of the fire alarm, and the broadcasting of evacuation instructions over the School’s P.A. system by the School’s vice principal [Joseph Starvaggi].

The non-disabled students were evacuated, but, because the School’s elevators shut down the emergency alarm is triggered, some disabled students who were not of floors with wheelchair-accessible means of egress, including Jennifer, remained inside the School, unable to access an exit. As a result, Jennifer and her aide proceeded to the third floor library where they were met by a security officer who was in radio contact with School officials outside the building.

The School’s Director of Security [Bruce Daniele] radioed the vice principal to inform him that disabled students were stranded inside the School. The vice principal later claimed that the Fire Department instructed him not to evacuate disabled students, but, according to Plaintiffs, the Fire Department denies that it was ever notified that disabled students were in the building, or that it gave instructions not to evacuate the disabled students. Approximately five to seven minutes later, Jennifer received instructions to move to another room on the third floor, and to remain there until the “all clear” signal was given, which she did.”

The School District alleged that, “upon the Fire Department’s arrival at the School on the morning of January 31, 2013, District representatives informed the first responders that mobility-impaired students remained inside. The Fire Department proceeded to instruct School personnel to evacuate the building, but determined that the situation did not require the evacuation of non-ambulatory students. School officials relayed these instructions, via walkie-talkie, to Jennifer, who remained inside the building until the emergency was resolved at approximately 9:37 a.m. As a result of the events of January 31, 2013 (and other incidents not relevant to the present motion), Plaintiff and her father, a co-Plaintiff, filed the underlying action on September 16, 2014 against the School District, alleging discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

In its response to the District’s motion, the Fire Department denied they were told that non-ambulatory students were in the building or that they instructed the District not to evacuate non-ambulatory students.

The School District has until mid-January to ask Judge Seibel to reconsider.