Disabled man sues Towson U. over dorm access

Would-be student says Millennium Hall violated law, was not wheelchair-ready

December 07, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

A Baltimore County man with muscular dystrophy was unable to enroll this year at Towson University because the campus failed to provide him with adequate wheelchair-accessible housing as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday in federal District Court.

Filed on behalf of Mark Kuchmas, 28, the suit alleges that virtually none of the 108 units at Towson's Millennium Hall apartments - a privately owned student residence hall on university land - meets the handicap-accessibility requirements of the federal Fair Housing Act.

"What makes this case really odd, or surprising, is that the developer and owner are big, national organizations in the business of student housing," said Kuchmas' attorney, Andrew Levy of Baltimore. "These are not amateurs."

Opened in 2000, 400-bed Millennium Hall was developed and is managed by Alabama-based student housing developer Capstone Development Corp. The property is owned by the nonprofit Collegiate Housing Foundation, also of Alabama, under a long-term ground lease with the university.

In addition to the university, Millennium's owner, developer, property management company, architect and construction manager are named as defendants in the suit.

Towson's student newspaper reported in October that the university has tentatively selected Capstone as the developer of two dormitories to be built next to Millennium Hall.

A university spokeswoman disputed the claims made in the lawsuit yesterday, but the school also sought to distance itself from liability on the grounds that the public university is not responsible for student housing it doesn't own, even if it is on campus property.

"Mr. Kuchmas never resided in a university residence hall and was never turned down for university housing because he requested `accessible housing' as his complaint alleges," said spokeswoman Carol Vellucci in a written statement.

"Rather, Mr. Kuchmas contracted exclusively with Millennium Hall for housing, and Millennium Hall is a privately owned and operated housing facility for which the university is not responsible."

In response, Levy said Towson could not legally delegate its obligation to comply with federal anti-discrimination law, which covers the disabled.

"Towson cannot wash its hands of this matter," he said. "They have, under federal law, the ultimate responsibility to provide for the accessible housing needs of their students and they did not do so."

According to the suit, Kuchmas, whose degenerative neuromuscular disease requires him to use a wheelchair, was admitted to Towson and intended to enroll in the spring semester of 2006. He was referred by a campus housing officer to Millennium Hall because there were no suitable dormitory units on campus available for his first semester, the complaint says.

After signing a lease, Kuchmas toured the Millennium Hall unit in mid-January but discovered it was not configured in a way that would allow him to comfortably use the bathroom and shower area, among other problems, said Levy.

Failing to receive another unit at Millennium, the student asked for help from Towson's Office of Disability Services, but "none was provided," according to the suit. Kuchmas returned to his parent's home in the Nottingham area of Baltimore County and hired an attorney, said Levy.

Levy said his investigation into Kuchmas' complaint indicates that none of the units in Millennium Hall meets the various features of handicap-accessibility required by law.

Requests for comment by Capstone and Houston-based architects PGAL Architects were not immediately returned yesterday. An attorney for the Collegiate Housing Foundation, which owns about 30 similar residence halls nationwide, said yesterday afternoon that he had not seen the lawsuit documents. Kuchmas also was not available, his lawyer said.

Kuchmas' suit asks the court to require the defendants to bring student housing into compliance with federal law, and to award the would-be student an unspecified amount of money.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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