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Herb Semmel, 73; Rights Lawyer Brought Key Case on Bias Against Disabled

February 10, 2004|From a Times Staff Writer

Herb Semmel, a longtime civil rights attorney who filed the first successful administrative complaint under the Americans With Disabilities Act, died Thursday at the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 73.

Before moving to Los Angeles 10 years ago, Semmel was litigation director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, where he filed a complaint with the Justice Department under the federal law prohibiting discrimination against the disabled. The complaint, filed in 1992 on the day the law went into effect, alleged that public areas of the Empire State Building were inaccessible to people with physical handicaps.

The complaint was settled in 1994 with an agreement that resulted in changes in elevators and entrances, the addition of ramps, the elimination of barriers on the observations decks that blocked views for visitors in wheelchairs and the addition of lower, wheelchair-accessible periscopes.

During the last decade, Semmel worked as a staff attorney for the National Senior Citizens Law Center in Los Angeles, where his work focused on healthcare, including cases involving Medicaid. For the last three years, he also directed the Federal Rights Project, which developed strategies for civil rights groups and others seeking to enforce federal laws against states and government agencies.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and New York University, Semmel spent six years in Washington with the Center for Law and Social Policy, three of them as director, before moving to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. He was the author of three books, including "Americans With Disabilities Handbook." He taught at seven law schools, including those at the University of Illinois, the University of Texas, the University of Maryland and UCLA.

Semmel's contributions to public interest law were recognized last year with the Reginald Heber Smith Award from the National Legal Aid and Defender Assn. and the Felix A. Fishman Award for Public Service from New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

He was married to Louanne Kennedy, recently retired provost and vice president for academic affairs at Cal State Northridge, who survives him, along with two children from a previous marriage, Amy Semmel of Los Angeles and Eric Semmel of Dedham, Mass.; five stepchildren, Edward Kuhns of Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., Michael Kuhns of Los Angeles, Ann-Louise Kuhns of Sacramento, Jennifer Kuhns of Philadelphia, and Christine Rolka of Aiken, S.C.; his mother, Gertrude Semmel of Los Angeles; a brother, Richard Semmel, of Cary, Ill.; and 13 grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to the National Senior Citizens Law Center, for the Herbert Semmel Federal Rights Project, 1101 14th St. NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C., 20005.

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