HOUSTON – The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas (USAO-SDTX) has established a new Civil Rights Section within its Civil Division that will have the authority to investigate and to remedy civil rights violations within the district, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson. This section will be separate from what is handled by Criminal - Civil Rights and will welcome information from the public that brings to its attention possible violations of our nation’s civil rights laws.
The Civil – Civil Rights Section will civilly enforce federal civil rights laws including the Fair Housing Act, Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. Civil remedies under these statutes include monetary penalties, injunctions, civil judgments and more.
Coinciding with the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the newly created Civil Rights Section is conducting a review of 25 of Houston’s most popular restaurants to determine if they are in compliance with the ADA. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by places of public accommodation, including restaurants, and requires such places to be designed, constructed and altered in compliance with the accessibility standards established by the ADA’s implementing regulations.
This initiative is in accordance with the Department of Justice’s congressionally-mandated responsibility to review compliance with the ADA and is not in response to any specific complaint against a restaurant. USAO-SDTX objectively selected the restaurants using recent third-party restaurant rankings to review 25 of Houston’s most popular and frequented restaurants.
As part of the review, restaurants will be asked to complete a survey regarding accessibility. Investigators may then conduct on-site inspections to confirm survey responses and to evaluate compliance with federal ADA regulations. Restaurants found to be non-compliant will have the option of entering into a Voluntary Compliance Agreement in which they agree to upgrade their facilities to meet ADA requirements. Restaurants found to be engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination or failing to enter into an agreement may face a civil lawsuit and can also be subject to monetary penalties and civil fines.
“The ADA is the cornerstone of civil rights for people living with disabilities, and restaurants are required to comply with its accessibility provisions,” said Magidson. “We will take all reasonable steps within our authority to ensure that non-compliant restaurants make the necessary changes, rather than face litigation. Our goal is not to take a heavy-handed approach to this initiative, but to work with the restaurants to bring them into compliance, so that the entire community can enjoy access to the restaurants.”
In conjunction with the establishment of the new Civil Rights Section within the USAO-SDTX Civil Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also hosted a Civil Rights Symposium today. The purpose of the event was to discuss the nation’s federal civil rights laws in the areas of disability, housing and education, and highlight the role of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in ensuring compliance and effective monitoring in the areas of affirmative civil rights enforcement. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison were the featured speakers and addressed civil rights enforcement and a judicial perspective of the enforcement of voting rights, respectively.
Other presentations from various Department of Justice personnel included such areas as disability rights laws and enforcement; discrimination in access to housing, credit and public accommodations; equal educational opportunities; and improving local communities through an active civil rights practice.
Organizations invited to attend included members of the American Civil Liberties Union, City of Houston, Disability Rights Texas, Houston Center for Independent Living, Houston Volunteer Lawyers, Lambda Legal, Leadership for Educational Equality, League of United Latin American Citizens, Lone Star Legal Aid, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, South Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education - Civil Rights, Teach for America, Texas Appleseed, Texas Paralyzed Veterans and Texas Wins.
Participants were also able to raise questions or concerns regarding civil rights issues in the Southern District of Texas.