After reading a recent blog in which the author asserted that “handicap” under the Fair Housing Act had the same meaning as “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act I thought it would be useful to re-visit this question, which I last wrote about in 2014. There have been a few new decisions, none decisive, and the bottom line remains the same. The 2008 amendments to the ADA changed the definition of “disabled,” but there was no equivalent amendment to the FHA. Ordinary principles of statutory interpretation require the conclusion that the two words no longer have the same meaning. For all the details see my earlier blog by clicking this LINK. It has been updated with the more recent decisions in this area.
On July 7 H.R. 3765, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2015, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. H.R. 3765 is one of several pending ADA reform bills targeting “drive-by” or serial litigants. They share a common approach, requiring that plaintiffs give notice before filing suit so the problem can be fixed. They also share a common reaction from the disabilities and business communities. Disability advocates vehement oppose the bills while business groups support them.
We’ve blogged about H.R. 3765 before (click HERE and HERE to read the earlier blogs). Our prediction that the bill would go nowhere is proving wrong, but our criticism of the bill’s likely effectiveness hasn’t changed. Serial litigation is driven by cheap standing and the economics of defending a lawsuit in federal court, neither of which will be changed by this bill. There is something in the bill that all sides should agree on – a requirement for more ADA education. Unfortunately, this requirement comes without any funding, so it is unlikely to be effectively implemented. The best way to reduce litigation and help the disabled involves seriously funded education for business and coordination of ADA compliance requirements with the building inspection process at the local level. This would improve ADA compliance before a suit was filed or demand letter sent, and that would have the effect of moving resources from attorneys fees to accessibility. Private enforcement of the ADA through litigation is the most wasteful way to achieve the goals of the ADA, and as long as litigation is the main tool for enforcement the lion’s share of money will go to lawyers instead of improvements in accessibility.
“First Fix, Then Fight” has been this blog’s slogan and trademark from the beginning. This isn’t based on a philosophical opposition to litigation, which is sometimes unavoidable, but on a hard headed assessment of the economics of ADA litigation and the difficulty in winning in the early stages of a case. Last week’s decision in Burrell v. Akinola, 2016 WL 3523781 (N.D. Tex. June 27, 2016) demonstrates why first fix, then fight has to be the foundation for ADA defense.
In Akinola the plaintiff sued the defendant for various violations of the ADA. The allegations of violations were not very specific, and the allegations related to the plaintiff’s standing were also somewhat general. Of course a dismissal based on pleading standards or standing is very hard to obtain, and perhaps with this in mind the defendant chose to attack whether there was any allegation of discrimination at all; that is, had Burrell alleged a violation of the statute.
The Court found the complaint about Burrell’s discrimination allegations “meritless.” The motion to dismiss was, it seems, based on a misunderstanding of how the various kinds of ADA discrimination (barrier removal, design/build, and renovation) interacted with each other and with the time at which a building was constructed. Allegations of renovation discrimination that were applicable to the plaintiff’s state law claims were found sufficient, if sparse.
Because the specific barrier removal allegations were rather general the Court, somewhat gratuitously, included a discussion of whether they were adequate. It concluded that they were, because they fell just on the right side of the line between general but sufficient and meaningless boilerplate. The cases cited by the Court will make interesting reading for lawyers who want to attack the sufficiency of a pleading, but it is worth remembering that while there are many district court level decisions considering the sufficiency of pleading, all are fact specific, and finding a consistent rule applicable in every jurisdiction is impossible.
So the defendant lost this preliminary motion and is now going to have to settle or defend the case on its merits. Was there ever the possibility of a real, permanent victory? If the defendant’s motion had been granted it would almost certainly have been with leave to amend. Given a roadmap of what allegations had to be improved the plaintiff would simply have amended and the lawsuit would have gone on. Only in a tiny percentage of cases does an initial Rule 12 dismissal survive amendment. However, if lighting struck and the amended complaint was dismissed the dismissal would have no effect on the risk of a future lawsuit. There are a number of disabled individuals in North Texas who regularly file ADA lawsuits, and duplicate suits by different plaintiffs are not unknown. In fact, the same plaintiff could simply re-file and improve his or her allegations because an early dismissal does not reach the merits of the case. For many reasons, including the importance of reputation, a plaintiff is unlikely to simply back off from a temporary loss. The only permanent victory in ADA litigation comes from having a building with no architectural barriers.
“First Fix, Then Fight.” The defendant in this and any almost any other ADA case is well advised to determine at the very beginning whether there are in fact any architectural barriers and then to act as quickly as possible to correct them. Unlike money spent on lawyers, money spent on barrier removal will always improve the odds of a defense victory and the prospect of a favorable settlement. You can’t do without a lawyer (see contact information on the right of this page), but every ADA defense has to recognize that real, permanent victory requires identifying architectural barriers and correcting them as the very first step in the lawsuit.
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA, ADA Policies, Apartments, Condominiums, Public Facilities, Restaurants, Retail, Shopping Centers Tags: accessible parking, ada litigation, parking lots, Public accommodation
What’s wrong with this picture? You can be excused if you don’t immediately think, “no accessible parking,” but that might be the first thing that would come to mind for the defendant in Langer v. G.W. Properties, L.P., , 2016 WL 3419299, (S.D. Cal. June 21, 2016). Langer serves as a reminder that a business not usually covered by the ADA can become a “public accommodation” based on temporary use, and that this may lead to requirements for permanent changes. Commercial enterprises and apartment complexes should pay attention, as should any owner of raw land that allows it to be used for parking from time to time.
A news story about a children’s theater group caught my eye this week because it so vividly illustrates the trouble a business can get into if it does not understand the law of reasonable accommodation under the ADA. You can read the story HERE. In brief, a potential theater member with a severe peanut allergy requested that the theater have a “no nuts” policy and that the director be willing if necessary to help the child with his epi-pen. The owner declined and probably said some unfortunate things about the request. Eventually the DOJ got involved and now, unless the matter settles, everyone will be off to court.
What went wrong? First, it is clear that the theater director did not understand the reasonable accommodation obligation and even more important, did not understand the “interactive process” that the ADA regulations encourage.* The name of the game in reasonable accommodation is trying to find a solution to the problem presented. A requested accommodation is not something to be accepted or rejected; it is something to be talked about. For a business this has the value of creating the appearance of reasonableness and, even more important, the opportunity to think about the issue carefully. In this case the first requested accommodation – making the theatre nuts free – is about as cheap and easy as it gets. All the theater owner had to do notify other parents that nuts were forbidden.
The second accommodation – willingness to use the child’s epipen – was more problematic. Many organizations are reluctant to administer prescription drugs. In a litigation happy society, it just seems like too big a risk to take. Here too, though, simply thinking through the problem and doing a little on-line research would have led to a different result. First, it only takes a little time with the internet to find that the Department of Justice has been suing or investigating child oriented business about epipens for more than 15 years. Unless you really want to take on Uncle Sam about whether peanut allergies are a disability** the battle isn’t worth fighting.
Perhaps more important, it seems likely that the theater already had a general release of some kind that all the parents had to sign. The owner’s demand for a special waiver of liability might not have been necessary and certainly looked like discrimination against one particular child based on a disability.
Finally, it would have been worth while to think through when an epipen is to be used. Epipens are for emergency use, and in many ways a child or adult in anaphylactic shock is like a person who has suffered a severe wound. Would the theater director really stood by and watch a child suffer because he didn’t want the risk of liability? Probably not. The refusal in advance to do something he would have done in the event of an emergency was pointless.
The moral of the story? Consider every request for accommodation as an invitation to try to solve a problem, and then think through – perhaps with the help of a lawyer – what risks would come from granting the accommodation and what risks might come from denying it. Reasonable accommodations are all about being reasonable, and that requires knowledge and a rational analysis of the various risks and costs involved.
* The “interactive process” is best defined in employment cases under Title I of the ADA and landlord tenant cases under the Fair Housing Act, but courts apply it in Title III cases as well.
**Many courts hold that food allergies are not disabilities. (See my blog HERE) DOJ disagrees, and the Supreme Court has not opined on the subject. Since DOJ will fight and has unlimited resources it isn’t the best opponent to take on with respect to this kind of claim.