The defendant in Johnson v. Patel, 2017 WL 3953949 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 8, 2017) used an increasingly common strategy to deal with an ADA lawsuit. He gave up. Most lawyers would never recommend complete surrender as a strategy, but in the last two years we have seen a significant number of these cases from California, so it is worth asking whether allowing a default can ever be a good strategy. More
ADA Attorney’s Fees
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Attorney's Fees, ADA Litigation Procedure, ADA Mootness Tags: accessible parking, ADA technical violations, common sense ADA, handicap parking
Strong v. Johnson et al, 2017 WL 3537746 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 27, 2017) probably won’t go down in history as a landmark ADA decision, but shows a sometimes uncommon level of common sense about the difference between technical ADA requirements and the reality of accessibility.
By the time of this decision, the defendants had remediated all of the barriers to access that gave rise to the original lawsuit. The plaintiffs, undeterred, sent their expert back out to look for more. What he found was an excessive cross-slope “at the head” of the accessible parking space and an excessive running slope at the handicapped parking sign. Both appear to constitute violations of the 2010 ADA Standards, which require that “parking spaces” have slopes of no more than about 2% and make no distinction between the different parts of the parking space.
The Court rejected these technical violations because: “Passengers do not load, unload, or transfer into or out of vehicles at the head of a parking space, and vehicular lifts do not deploy there.” What matters for accessibility is how the slope of the space affects a disabled person, not whether there is some spot that has a slightly excessive slope. The Court had a similar observation about slopes in the middle of a parking space: “While excessive slope in the center of a parking space might technically be a violation of some kind, the fact that it is in the middle of the parking space means it would be underneath any vehicle parked there.” The court does mention the slope at the sign, but the same reasoning applies. A person in a wheelchair isn’t going to run into or even scrape a sign, so the slope at the sign is irrelevant to accessibility.
This common sense matters to defendants because one of the many games experts play in this ADA cases involves what this expert seems to have done; that is, taking measurements at many locations, trying to find just one or two that will justify a complaint. Parking spaces are large enough that it is hard to make the entire space and adjacent aisle perfectly flat, so this game often yields results. Requiring the plaintiff to show not just a technical violation, but a violation that mattered for accessibility, will often be a victory for a defendant who would otherwise end up re-paving a perfectly good parking space.
The Court also rejected the idea that the slopes might affect the plaintiff as she traversed the parking lot because as a matter of fact she never crossed the lot; she just parked and got out of her van. The slopes might be a problem for someone, but they were not for her. The Court had a similar observation about the striping on the access aisle. After noting that there did not seem to be even a technical violation the Court went on to note that: “And even if this might be a barrier for someone, Plaintiffs have never said why it would be a barrier for them.” Access aisles are required to be marked so as to discourage parking, but this only matters if the plaintiff cannot load or unload because of a parked vehicle, which evidently never happened.
For those who wonder why the Plaintiffs tried so hard to keep their lawsuit alive when the owner had fixed all the problems they identified, the answer is simple. Money. When remediation makes a lawsuit moot the plaintiff’s lawyers go home empty handed, and for most lawyers there is no more horrible result than that. Our next blog – “Mootness done right” – will discuss a case demonstrating what defendants must do if they want to take advantage of the mootness defense. In the meantime, remember that in one court, at least, common sense about the real impact of technical violations matters.
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
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA Attorney's Fees, ADA Litigation Procedure, ADA regulations, ADA rulemaking, Movies Tags: Closed Captioning, Department of Justice, movie theaters, regulations
Hard on the heels of the news about a newly filed lawsuit demanding closed captioning and audio descriptions* the Department of Justice has announced its rules concerning accessibility for movie theaters**, which will become effective sometime in the next few months. This is clearly good news for movie theaters who want certainty about their legal obligations, but will it put an end to the pending lawsuit, or prevent future claims? The disturbing answer is likely “no.” More
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.