By Ryan C. Chapoteau and Gregg E. Clifton, of Jackson Lewis
Throughout the country, sports teams and their venues have been hit with an uptick of public accommodation lawsuits under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), along with its state and local counterparts. The ability to obtain attorney’s fees makes these cases attractive to plaintiffs’ firms.
Plaintiffs include fans, who team up with firms to travel around facilities or sign onto websites to “test” ADA compliance, and others who felt aggrieved after attending an event.
The claims range from not removing physical barriers to access, restricting fans with dietary restrictions from bringing outside food, forbidding service animals to enter, as well as operating websites that are inaccessible to those who are visually impaired or blind.
Title III of the ADA was passed in 1990. It provides that “[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a). The law has required sports teams to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures to make their goods and services available to people with disabilities. Plaintiffs argue that this applies to physical locations as well as commerce-driven websites despite differing court rulings.
While some companies opt to settle claims early to avoid the cost of litigation, others are taking a hard stance and defending their ADA compliance in court. For example, this past June, in Nevarez v. Forty Niners Football Co. LLC, No. 5:16-cv-07013 (N.D. Cal.), the San Francisco 49ers moved for the court to deny the plaintiffs’ claims and declare that the team’s stadium complies with all federal and state public accommodation laws. The plaintiffs include a class of wheelchair-bound fans and their family members who assist them. They allege the property does not comply with accessibility standards for wheelchair use in and around the stadium.
The lawsuit seeks to correct hundreds of supposed claims including, for example, barriers between satellite parking lots and the stadium, a lack of accessible seating at all price levels, restrictions to disabled and non-disabled groups purchasing tickets together, and physical obstacles within the stadium. Along with requesting the defendants to make repairs, the plaintiffs are seeking statutory damages and attorneys’ fees.
The defendants argue that certain parking lot accessibility issues have already been corrected and the remaining allegations do not violate disability laws.
If the case proceeds to trial, it will be interesting to see how a jury rules, as the court has already decided that it will review only a sampling of barriers to determine whether the stadium met accessibility standards.
This case is only one recent reminder of the ongoing Title III disability-related litigation, generally occurring in California, Florida, and New York. There does not appear to be an end of these claims in sight. Sports leagues, teams, and stadium operators should consider reviewing their policies and websites with counsel before being hit with litigation.