Michael Nunez fights for the right of people of all abilities to enjoy the good things in life
Published in 2018 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
By RJ Smith on July 10, 2018
By the time you read this, Michael Nunez will be packing his windbreaker, maybe a spare gunwale or skeg or whatever else a rowing team member takes with him when he hits the road. Nunez is heading for the Gay Games in Paris this August, where he will run a half-marathon and compete with a rowing crew from the Bay Area.
The blind civil rights lawyer, born with Leber congenital amaurosis, is building a career, and a life beyond that career, on the idea that the good things life has to offer should be enjoyed by all. At 33, he’s already taken on Airbnb, Uber, Lyft and the state of California regarding the availability of their services to everyone. And he’s just getting started.
A pure California product, Nunez was born in the Central Valley, grew up in the San Fernando Valley and studied economics at Stanford University. When he took a civil rights course covering everything from voting rights to LGBTQ law, Nunez says, “it resonated personally with my own experiences as a person with a disability and with a Latino background and who just, in general, was really excited about the possibility of having a career where I’m helping people on a larger scale.”
Nunez worked as a paralegal at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and took a job at the Federal Trade Commission, at the intersection of law and economics. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he worked as a staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, before landing at Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld.
One area of concern for Nunez is technology access—which can be a problem even at law firms. But solving it can be as simple as getting everybody to make comments via “track editing” on electronic documents rather than writing in the margins of a printout, which is preferred by some attorneys.
More broadly, there are issues in making the internet and its capabilities available to those with disabilities. “I’ve had experiences where I’ve struggled to use tools and technologies that everybody else has been enjoying on a regular basis,” Nunez says.
Attorney Stuart Seaborn met Nunez at Disability Rights Advocates in 2011, when the two were paired on cases involving access to technology. “Mike just had this incredible savvy,” he says. “He had a high-level understanding of the technology and could put it into words that others could understand. … Mike has it all off the top of his head.”
Nunez has reached agreements with Uber and Lyft on policies allowing service animals; teamed with Airbnb to improve its policies on wheelchair access and service animals; and reached a settlement with Redbox to modify its kiosks to provide access for the visually impaired.
“I do think these ubiquitous modern technologies raise the standard of living and provide new options to people across society,” he says. “These technologies make life overall better for people who can access them. The concern, from a civil rights angle, is that they are available to and work for everybody.”
Technology, he says, “can lift all boats and make life better when it works best. But these new services, if we’re not careful, can create a kind of second-class citizenry that doesn’t get to enjoy these marvels.”
The case he considers his biggest achievement began in 2013, when Nunez sued Alameda County for not properly maintaining its electronic “talking” voting machines, which provide the disabled with an adequate way to vote. “It was pretty groundbreaking—the first time a federal court ruled that the ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] provided that, if a public entity is giving other people the ability to vote privately and independently, then the ADA assures that people with disabilities get to do that, too.”
Building on that victory, Nunez and Rosen Bien colleague Lisa Ells filed a lawsuit on behalf of the California Council of the Blind. They sued San Mateo County and the state for failing to have a vote-by-mail system in place that was accessible to visually impaired voters. The settlement they achieved paves the way for equal access across the state.
Nunez celebrated with a ski trip to Alpine Meadows at Lake Tahoe. Already a half-marathon veteran and a polished ballroom dancer, he has recently picked up downhill skiing—a sport that’s a challenge for most, with or without sight. “It was a really great time,” he says.
“He’s kind of a renaissance man in the advocacy community,” says Seaborn. “He’s taken on quite a few novel issues, and it’s been amazing to watch.”
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