In some ways the 9th Circuit’s recent decision in Kalani v. Starbucks Coffee Co., 2017 WL 2813864, at *1 (9th Cir. June 28, 2017) is one of the saddest in the long history of ADA litigation. Robert Kalani was a mild kind of serial plaintiff who filed 15 cases in the Northern District of California over a period of several years. The most seriously litigated was his lawsuit against Starbucks, which claimed in part that point of sale displays encroached on the clear counter space required by the ADA. Now it is almost over, revealing both the minimal impact that individual lawsuits have on accessibility and the incredible waste of money involved in defending such cases. More
- A lengthy and unnecessary recital of the legislative history of the law, including all kinds of statements about the historical oppression of those with disabilities,
- A broad allegation that the plaintiff visited the defendant’s location, without details that might make the claim verifiable, and
- A series of broad statements about violations of the law that, once again, lack any detail that would make them verifiable.
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Web Access Tags: Amazon, internet accessibility, WCAG 2.0, website accessibility, Whole Foods acquisition
The major news outlets seem to have overlooked the most interesting aspect (to me) of Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods; that is, Amazon’s leap into the world of serial ADA filers and controversy over internet accessibility. Amazon has experimented with physical stores, but soon it will have hundreds of them in the U.S., and every one of them has some kind of ADA accessibility issue. That isn’t an accusation, but an assumption based on the highly technical requirements in the 2010 ADA Standards and the proven inability of even the most sophisticated organizations to control the hundreds or thousands of people whose jobs are not primarily related to accessibility to do what is required. Somebody’s going to stack boxes in a hallway, block a checkout counter, take too long to repair a vandalized accessible parking sign, or fail to notice a 10% slope where 8.3% is the maximum. Whole Foods has already been sued many times based on accessibility failures in its stores. More
The following link is to a story on ABC 15, Arizona concerning the latest developments in the ongoing investigation of abusive ADA litigation in Arizona and New Mexico. Local Judge Orders Release. The article explains the situation in some detail, but the basic news is simple. A private company hired lawyers and plaintiffs to file ADA lawsuits, paying for their services and pocketing what looks like a substantial profit. None of this might have ever come to light except that the number of suits (in the thousands) was astonishing even by ADA serial litigation standards.
For both disabilities advocates and firms like ours that defend ADA lawsuits this kind of report poses a critical question: Is this the norm, or an aberration? When we see dozens or hundreds of ADA suits filed in a short time by a single firm and plaintiff are we seeing a legitimate effort to create an accessible world or exploitation of a law for purely private benefit? More
Billy Joel had a major pop hit in 1977 with “Get it Right the First Time” from “The Stranger.” Forty years later Starbucks has proven just how true this is. In Crandall v. Starbucks Corp., 2017 WL 1246749 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 5, 2017) the Court reminded Starbucks and every other public accommodation that “get it right the next time” is not the same thing as getting it right the first time. In fact, it is the difference between winning and losing.
The issue of interest in Crandall v. Starbucks concerned access to a counter that was blocked by a point of sale display. This is not a first for Starbucks as we described a couple of years ago in POS Marketing and ADA Compliance – you can’t have it both ways. In the earlier Kalani v. Starbucks case the defense was that POS sales items were only temporary barriers because they could be easily removed. The Court disagreed because, in its view, the POS displays were intended to be permanent even though they could be moved.The displays at issue in Crandall were a standing display placed so close to the counter that it intruded into the required 36 inches of clearance as well as displays on the counter itself. Some time after the lawsuit was filed the standing display was moved out of the way and the counter displays were removed. This, according to Starbucks, eliminated the need for any relief and required a defense summary judgment.
The Court disagreed, noting that the changes were not structural or permanent because the displays at issue were easily movable. Equally important, there was no evidence that Starbucks had adopted any policy against on-counter displays or concerning the placement of merchandise displays. Because Starbucks could re-create the barriers to access at any time the case was not moot.
So far, so bad, but worse was coming. The Court found the existence of a violation at the time the plaintiff visited and on two later occasions was established as a matter of law, refused to credit Starbucks’ argument that its employees would always move the displays to a correct position, and granted summary judgment for the plaintiff. “Get it right the first time” and there’s no lawsuit at all. “Get it right the next time” and you’ll be paying the plaintiff’s attorneys fees while contemplating a permanent injunction. In cases involving things like displays that employees place and move, getting it right the first time means having a policy in place before there is a lawsuit that requires employees to maintain an accessible premises.*
Crandall v Starbucks includes a complaint that the required route was not 36 inches wide, but it seems the Court granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs because it was undisputed “that when there are customers in the store the displays make the path of travel too narrow.” Id. at *14. The Court also found that accessible routes might be blocked in the future based on the “absence of any policy preventing customers from moving chairs around to other tables in a manner that might block the path of travel.” In both cases the problem identified by the Court is not any structural feature of the restaurant, or even a problem with where the furniture was placed by the staff, but rather a problem with the conduct of other customers.
It isn’t difficult to imagine that in an informal space like a coffee house or bar customers will feel free to move chairs and even tables, and may congregate in areas that are part of an accessible route. The ADA prohibition on “discrimination” applies to the design and construction of public accommodations and the removal of “architectural barriers and communication barriers that are structural in nature.” It doesn’t say anything about regulating the behavior of other customers. Starbucks has not been afraid in the past to take cases to the Ninth Circuit, and it would be nice in this case to get a definitive rejection of the notion that businesses are required to regulate customer behavior in order to comply with the ADA. In the meantime, businesses that are crowded or are pushing the limits of accessibility should be be careful.
*In a ruling this week a Magistrate Judge in the Western District of Pennsylvania approved class certification for a lawsuit against Steak & Shake that appears to rest primarily on a failure to properly maintain its parking lots. Last year this time we blogged about a similar lawsuit against Cracker Barrel restaurants brought by the same law firm. Does the ADA Require a Compliance Policy? Every temporary barrier caused by a lack of maintenance can turn into a permanent injunction if the right policies are not in place before a lawsuit is filed.