By Nicholas P. Smith, MA, of Florida International University & Troy University
In September 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court ruling for the Seattle Mariners in a lawsuit involving sightlines for handicapped seating at T-Mobile Park.
Judges M. Margaret McKeown, Danielle J. Forrest, and Patrick J Bumatay presided over Landis v. Washington State MLB Stadium Public Facilities District. The judges expressed a sentiment of uncertainty that two seating sections of T-Mobile Park complied with Washington state’s Law Against Discrimination and The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The district court had concluded that the stadium’s sightlines are adequate, but it did not explain how the stadium satisfies a Department of Justices’ 1996 Accessible Stadium’s document. The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court ruling and remanded.
Clark Landis, Robert Barker, Grady Thompson, and Kayla Brown started a complaint against Washington State MLB Stadium Public Facilities District, Baseball of Seattle Inc, Mariners Baseball LLC, and the Baseball Club of Seattle, LLLP in 2018. The complaint asserted that “non-ambulatory spectators do not have adequate sightlines over standing spectators when seated in the wheelchair accessible seating” in certain parts of the ballpark. “When spectators stand,” the complaint insists, “plaintiffs’ sight lines are obscured. This is most likely to occur at exciting moments of the game” (McCann, 2021). Moreover, the complaint states that T-Mobile Park, built in 1996, does not disperse the ADA seating adequately, or offer comparable prices for all patrons. All three judges rejected those claims from the district court in that T-Mobile Park offers plenty of assessible seating at all price points and along every point of egress.
The ADA act does not mandate that all seating levels of tickets be proportionately represented. Sightlines of the scoreboard were deemed sufficient in this case. The ADA was first signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26,1990 (Maher, 2021). Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 327. The ADA “establishes a clear and comprehensive federal prohibition of discrimination against persons with disabilities in private sector employment and ensures equal access for persons with disabilities to public accommodations, public services, transportation, and telecommunications (National Easter Seal Society, n.d.; Appenzeller, 2017).” Its purpose was to include people with disabilities from society into an integrative model that encourages their right to “full participation as equals in the social and economic life of the community (Maher, 2021).” U.S. Senator Tom Harkin was the ADA’s chief sponsor and touted it a s a “20th Century Emancipation Proclamation” that would “make the promise of equal opportunity a reality for 43 million Americans” (Maher, 2021). The ADA bars public accommodations from discrimination on the basis of disability and requires all stadia, restaurants, and public buildings be designed and constructed to be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. Id. § 12183(a)(1). Title III of the ADA act requires that “no 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 or public accommodation by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990 at 12182 (b) (2) (A) (ii); Dougherty, Goldberger, Carpenter, 2007).” In July 1991, The US Department of Justice (DOJ) adopted the “standard at issue here: Wheelchair areas shall be an integral part of any fixed seating plan and shall be provided so as to provide people with physical disabilities a choice of admission prices and lines of sight comparable to those for members of the general public” (Maher, 2021). The DOJ is the federal agency responsible for enforcing sections of the ADA related to public accommodation (Appenzeller, 2017). These broad requirements are the issue at hand in Landis v. Washington State MLB Stadium Pub Facilities District. Inadequate sightlines for ADA patrons behind standing patrons in the row in front of them is the remaining issue for the district court to decide.
T-Mobile Park has four seating levels with ADA seating available in all levels. Attorneys for the defendants stated that the ballpark is fully compliant with the ADA directive. “Fans using wheelchairs are able to purchase seats with a wide variety of perspectives and sightlines.” The defendants’ attorneys stated that there is no accepted methodology for assessing sightlines, with case law providing conflicting guidance. “There is no data for eye height of persons seated in wheelchairs, nor average head height, eye height or shoulder height of standing spectators,” according to the defendant’s brief highlights (McCann, 2021). The debate remains for the other patrons that sit in front of the ADA patrons in the two rows in front of their seating.
This case was remanded to the trial court for further discussions and deliberations on this point.
Conrad Reynoldson, founder and lead attorney of Seattle-based Washington Civil & Disability Advocate, a Seattle-based disability rights and civil rights nonprofit organization, who was one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said in a statement, “We are pleased with the ruling from the Ninth Circuit. Everyone deserves an accessible and inclusive experience. Baseball fans with disabilities simply wish to have a comparable view of the game when they go out to enjoy America’s pastime. We are hopeful that this decision will lead to positive changes going forward (Greenwald, 2021).”
Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. section 12101-12213 (1990).
Appenzeller, H. (2017). Risk management in sport : Issues and strategies (3rd ed.). Carolina Academic Press.
Clark Landis, Robert Barker, Grady Thompson, Kayla Brown v. Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District; Baseball of Seattle, Inc., a Washington corporation; Mariners Baseball, LLC, a Washington limited liability company; The Baseball Club of Seattle, LLLP, a Washington limited liability limited partnership, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 26365, No. 19-360075. (2021). https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2021/09/01/19-36075.pdf
Dougherty, N. J., Goldberger, A.S., and Carpenter L. J. (2007). Sport, Physical Activity, and the Law (3rd ed.). Sagamore Publishing.
Greenwald, J. (2021, September 2). Appellate court overturns ruling in favor of Seattle Mariners in ADA Case. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsurance.com/article/00010101/NEWS06/912344307/Appellate-court-overturns-ruling-in-favor-of-Seattle-Mariners-in-ADA-case
Maher, J.D. (2020, May 1). Brief of disability rights organizations as amici curiae in support of appellants and reversal. Retrieved from https://www.ndrn.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Landis-v.-Wash.-State-MLB-Stadium-Pub.-Facil.-Dist.-AMICUS-BRIEF-FINAL-as-FILED.pdf
McCann, M. (2021, September 10). Mariners dodge stadium overhaul in wheelchair sightlines case. Retrieved from https://sports.yahoo.com/mariners-dodge-stadium-overhaul-wheelchair-140054332.html
National Easter Seal Society. (n.d.). Awareness in the first step brochures: The Americans with disabilities act- Tips for disability awareness. National Easter Seal Society
Nicholas P. Smith , MA is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Counseling, Recreation, and School Psychology at Florida International University. He is also a doctoral student in Sport Management at Troy University. He has over a decade of experience in various management positions with ASM Global Caesar’s Superdome / Smoothie King Center / Champions Square formally SMG World.