Fresno attorney sues historic Rowell Building owners over disabled access

The Fresno BeeJanuary 4, 2014 

Fresno attorney David Mugridge has had it with the historic Rowell Building, his professional home since 1995.

Mugridge, 64, partially disabled from multiple back surgeries over the past eight years, has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno, alleging more than a dozen violations of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, as well as state law related to handicapped access.

"How dare they have a (handicapped) sticker down on the front door," he said. "They have done nothing to comply with that act."

It's not his only lawsuit against the building's owners. Last May, he filed a personal injury lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court against the building's owners and others after he said the elevator dropped suddenly, reinjuring his back and leading to his fourth surgery.

The building's owners -- Burgess, Smith & Wathen Partnership IV -- could not be reached for comment. A person reached Friday at Burgess Smith Development Group said no company principals were in the office, but typically in such cases they decline to comment.

Mugridge's lawsuit says the Rowell Building, built in Renaissance Revival style at the corner of Tulare Street and Van Ness Avenue in downtown Fresno, has multiple violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. But his biggest gripes are with the bathrooms.

Among his bathroom issues: there is no wide handicapped stall, faucets require grasping or twisting, there is no room to maneuver, and a grab bar was installed but it is not ADA compliant.

Mugridge uses a cane -- and sometimes a walker -- to get around. That, he said, makes bathroom access difficult enough. Using a wheelchair, he said, would make using the bathroom impossible.

But Mugridge's lawsuit lists other problems, too. For instance, if he wants after-hours access to the building, he must get on his hands and knees to get access to the keyhole.

In total, Mugridge says, there are 16 violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act cited in his lawsuit.

He also says the grab bars in the elevator are not compliant with the law, which is one of the reasons he was injured when the elevator dropped.

The 101-year-old building, one of 270 properties on the city's Local Register of Historic Resources, is one of Fresno's architectural gems. Even Mugridge raves about it.

"It's a beautiful building," he said. "They just need to fix it up a little bit."

The handicapped issues, he says, are the most glaring example of its neglect.

Most of the tenants, he says, have fled. The sixth floor is deserted, and is a mess that in one room includes a rotting hole in the ceiling.

Mugridge says he's the building's oldest tenant, moving in back in 1995. He's on the fifth floor.

His lease is month-to-month, so he could move out, but the rent is cheap, and he's not sure how much longer he'll be able to practice law. Moving to the first floor, he thinks, would probably increase his rent significantly.

All combined, he said, the expense of moving, paying higher rent and likely having to sign a long-term lease at another location are keeping him where he's at.

At this point, he said, all he can do is fight to get some building improvements.

"I do know that right now I'm handicapped and they don't care," he said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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