Politics & Government

Girls in wheelchairs should’ve been let on Gateway ice, suit says, and lawyer targets TJ Cox

Fresno’s Gateway Ice Center is facing non ADA-compliance and discrimination charges

Hatmaker Law Group attorney Rachelle Golden explains why she is pursuing non ADA-compliance and discrimination charges against Fresno's Gateway Ice Center
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Hatmaker Law Group attorney Rachelle Golden explains why she is pursuing non ADA-compliance and discrimination charges against Fresno's Gateway Ice Center

Two children who use wheelchairs have filed a federal lawsuit against the Central Valley Community Sports Foundation, which operates Gateway Ice Center, alleging they were discriminated against when foundation management barred them from the ice.

According to the lawsuit, Megan McKeon, a 16-year-old amputee, and Laila Neal, a 7-year-old with cerebral palsy, attended separate birthday parties held at the Fresno ice rink in 2016 and 2017. Each alleges she was told she could not use the ice during regular ice time due to safety concerns. Each was told she would have to return during specific times set aside for people in wheelchairs.

McKeon, Neal and Neal’s mother, Tina, filed the lawsuit in March 2018. It alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.

“My friends were out on the ice skating, so I was pretty much just in the lobby the whole night,” McKeon told The Bee in an interview. “And I was in tears that night, because I was so frustrated. I had never been discriminated against in my life until that night.”

The foundation has denied any wrongdoing or discrimination. Its management team of developer Terance Frazier, Congressman TJ Cox and Jeff Blair took over the rink, whose operators have struggled for decades to keep the lights on, in 2015.

Cox, who was elected to Congress in 2018, divested from the nonprofit foundation last month but was active within its management at the time of the alleged discrimination, listed on various documents as either a director, chief financial officer, treasurer or secretary.

The attorney for the girls, Rachelle Golden of Hatmaker Law Group, will ask the court next month to also include another of Cox’s businesses, Central Valley NMTC, in the lawsuit. She alleges that the NMTC, which works to provide federal tax credits and other funding for small businesses, provided federal money to a business in active violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.

In December, Golden tried unsuccessfully to have Cox added to the lawsuit as a defendant, meaning he could be held personally liable in the discrimination case.

In addition to the lawsuit, Gateway appears to be in serious danger of closure. Its landlord, Bob Glassman, has delivered an eviction notice to the foundation for unpaid rent. Glassman is hoping the city of Fresno will buy the land and take over as the foundation’s landlord, but city leaders have expressed no interest in the ice rink – even if it was offered up at no cost.

The case

McKeon, now 19, said she went to Gateway on June 26, 2016 to attend a friend’s sweet 16 party. When she was told she would not be allowed on the ice, her parents waited with her as the family demanded to speak to a manager.

Nineteen-year-old Megan McKeon, who is disabled, is suing Central Valley Community Sports Foundation, which manages Gateway Ice Center, for discrimination when she was not allowed on the ice when she was 16.

In the interview with The Bee, McKeon said she talked to Blair, who manages the rink, its youth hockey program and the Fresno Monsters hockey team. McKeon said Blair did not show much concern and was dismissive.

Blair, reached by phone, said he had no comment on the lawsuit.

The Gateway website Frequently Asked Questions page addresses the rink policy toward wheelchairs on the ice: “Due to safety requirements for the person in the wheelchair and other skaters, we do not allow this during public sessions. Private arrangements may be made. There is information about our adaptive sports program available on our site or you may contact the facility for details.”

Neal faced a similar response when she attempted to enter the ice on a wheelchair during a birthday party on Jan. 6, 2017, according to the lawsuit.

Golden, the attorney for the girls, said Neal isn’t often invited to parties and was very much looking forward to skating, but she was only able to participate in the cake and ice cream portion of the party.

McKeon said she hopes the lawsuit forces Gateway to change its policy about wheelchairs on the ice so that others are not segregated.

McKeon and Golden said that other ice rinks throughout the state allow wheelchairs on the ice during public skating hours.

“Being a wheelchair user myself for over 20 years now, I have never been told, ‘You can’t come inside’ or ‘You can not participate because you are in a wheelchair,’” Golden said.

EPZCOX_BUSINESSES02
Attorney Rachelle T. Golden discusses her ADA-related lawsuit against Gateway Ice Center in an interview at her office Friday, April 5, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Skatetown in Sacramento, for example, offers several options for wheelchair users – including free-to-rent cleats to assist those pushing the wheelchair.

“Our policy is that we encourage guests with disabilities to skate or go on the ice,” Skatetown’s website reads.

Foundation’s attorney responds

David Weiland, the attorney for Central Valley Community Sports Foundation, told The Bee that Gateway’s policy is not discriminatory, and thus there are no merits to the lawsuit. The policy is in place due to safety issues, he added.

In its official answer filed with the court, Weiland’s firm, Coleman and Horowitt LLP, says the plaintiffs suffered no damage as the result of the foundation. It says that any discrimination was not intentional.

The answer also says the two girls were not “bona fide patrons” of Gateway Ice Center and may have been there only to create a litigation situation.

Cox’s congressional office referred a request for comment on the lawsuit to Weiland.

Golden dismissed any notion that the lawsuit was frivolous or predatory, saying she typically works as a defense attorney for architects and construction companies to ensure they are compliant with ADA rules.

This is one of only a handful of lawsuits she’s filed against a business during her law career, Golden said. She said she was hesitant to sign onto the case because she worried about the possible stigma of working on the other side of an ADA case and how that could affect her typical casework.

“I like helping businesses to succeed,” Golden said. “And when I have a business (the foundation) that’s absolutely, intentionally, discriminating and refusing to comply with the law to include people with disabilities – using federal money or federal financial assistance to do that – I have a serious problem with that. And it needs to stop.”

The two sides have met for mandatory mediation, Golden said, but a settlement has not been reached.

tj cox
Congressman TJ Cox, D-Fresno Fresno Bee file


Lawyer argues Cox involvement

In December, when Golden tried unsuccessfully to have Cox added to the lawsuit as a defendant, Magistrate Judge Barbara McAuliffe ruled that Golden didn’t provide proof that Cox was directly involved in the alleged discrimination as an owner or operator of the foundation. Simply listing him as a chief financial officer or manager of the foundation, McAuliffe said, was not sufficient.

Golden has asked the court to include another of Cox’s businesses, Central Valley NMTC, in the lawsuit, alleging that it helped direct federal money to a business in violation of federal law.

According to the NMTC website, it “provided critical working capital and acquisition financing, which allowed (the foundation) to secure a $2.5 million donation of equipment, fixtures and supplies necessary to maintain operations at the facility.”

Central Valley NMTC was a strong foundation of Cox’s resume during his successful 2018 congressional bid. His campaign said Cox has raised and invested more than $65 million through the company while also creating more than 1,500 jobs and funding five community health clinics.

Golden criticized this platform, given the allegations against Gateway.

“How can you say that you represent an underserved population in financially distressed communities when you absolutely exclude the very people you are supposed to help?” Golden said. “That makes zero sense to me.”

Trouble at the foundation

The nonprofit foundation has faced increased scrutiny in recent months. A city audit reported questionable bookkeeping and financial practices at Granite Park, another Fresno sports facility run by the foundation, while the state attorney general’s office reported the foundation was delinquent in its annual registration forms.

In 2018, the city of Fresno reclaimed the management of several baseball fields at Al Radka Park from Frazier after he allegedly locked them up, denying neighborhood children access. NMTC provided $40,000 in grant funds to help finance Frazier’s adoption of the park.

Gateway’s future

The foundation has failed to pay its rent for Gateway, landlord Bob Glassman told The Bee in an interview. He has served the foundation with an eviction notice, giving it until May 2 to repay him. He refused to say how long the foundation has gone without paying or how much he is owed.

Should it be unable to pay, Glassman said the foundation will have to sell off its equipment to repay him.

Blair referred an inquiry about the eviction back to Glassman.

Glassman said he’s been in negotiations to sell the land and building to the city of Fresno.

“I built it in 1995. We did our best, but it didn’t work,” Glassman said. “The city should own it. Bakersfield owns its rink. Stockton owns its rink. What a wonderful parks and recreation center it would be.”

Glassman met with both Mayor Lee Brand and Councilman Miguel Arias, but both leaders say there is practically no chance the city will take over the land.

Arias said he met with Glassman about a week ago for a 15-minute discussion, which he said centered around the city’s already-devastated parks and recreation budget.

“Adding to the parks inventory would be a significant burden,” Arias said.

Arias denied a rumor floating around social media and political circles that he was orchestrating a city takeover of Gateway to “bail out” the foundation.

“That is so far away from basic truth,” he said. “The fact is our parks department is devastated.”

City spokesman Mark Standriff said Brand and chief of staff Tim Orman met with Glassman last year.

“The mayor expressed no interest whatsoever in wanting to take on an ice center,” Standriff said. “We do not want it – even for free. There has been no discussion since.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we reported this story

The reporter received a tip about a possible lawsuit involving Gateway Ice Center and the Central Valley Community Sports Foundation. The tipster referred the reporter to attorney Rachelle Golden.

The reporter contacted Golden, who confirmed the case’s existence and summarized it over the phone. She provided a case number, which allowed the reporter to find the case filing and relevant orders within the federal court database.

Golden was interviewed in her northwest Fresno office. The Bee then interviewed Golden’s client and the plaintiff in the lawsuit, Megan McKeon, at Golden’s office.

The Bee contacted the attorney listed for the foundation, David Weiland, and interviewed him by phone. The reporter then sent an inquiry to the office of Rep. TJ Cox and was told to contact Weiland.

During the course of the reporting, The Bee received another tip of a possible eviction notice sent to Gateway Ice Center.

The building’s owner, Bob Glassman, was reached by phone and confirmed this. He mentioned negotiations with city leadership, including Mayor Lee Brand and City Councilman Miguel Arias.

Arias was reached by phone for interview. The Bee contacted city spokesman Mark Standriff, who relayed the city’s statement on the negotiations.

Gateway manager Jeff Blair was reached by phone but declined to comment.

The Bee also contacted the Skatetown ice rink in Sacramento to confirm its policy on wheelchair users posted on its website.

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Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.


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