Nobody knows. The August 19, 2020 decision in Landis v. Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Pub. Facilities Dist., 2019 WL 3891566 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 19, 2019) is thoughtful, thorough, and from the standpoint of those looking for certainty concerning the stadium sightlines argument inconclusive. The Court denied the plaintiffs’ request for a ruling that as a matter of law the T-Mobile Stadium at which the Seattle Mariners play failed to meet ADA requirements, but the Court found it could not do so without a trial. This is the inevitable result of the complexity of stadium design and impossibility of promulgating regulations concerning the location of wheelchair accessible seating that are both specific and cover every possibility. At trial the Court will hear more evidence and make fact findings about just what comparable sightlines means in this particular stadium, but that result will likely cover only the single stadium at issue, leaving other courts and other cases to determine on a stadium by stadium basis what is good enough.
The opinion itself deals first with complicated but relatively non-controversial issues about serving counters and accessible eating. Except for one issue on which the parties agreed the Court finds that the “dynamic” nature of the arrangements in the stadium made summary judgment impossible. Not only are tables and line markers for the concession stands changed by management from game to game, there is evidence they are moved by fans as well. With respect to maintenance issues, what constitutes an adequate maintenance program when there are perhaps thousands of continually changing maintenance problems requires balancing too many factors for a decision without trial testimony.
After dealing with these “minor” issues the Court turns to what it calls the heavy hitters – distribution of wheelchair accessible seating and sightlines. Looking at the entire regulatory history and the relevant legal authorities the Court concludes that there is no legal standard it can apply to determine whether the stadium meets the ADA requirements. Here are the key holdings:
On distribution of seating:
Neither side, however, points the Court to a clear standard to determine whether the distribution that exists is sufficient to meet the ADA’s standards. In fact, neither party can find, nor can the Court locate, a definitive standard under the ADA apart from Section 4.33.3’s requirement that a distribution exist.
The parties present the Court with dueling standards presented by the same government agency. Further, this standard does not provide anthropometric dimensions with which to determine the comparability of sightlines. Plaintiffs and Defendants’ experts used the same standards to review T-Mobile Field’s sightlines and came to different conclusions about whether they comply with the ADA. . . . The need for further exploration by the parties is apparent, establishing that summary judgment is not appropriate.
Of real interest here is the “dueling standards” problem, which exists because the Department of Justice said different things in its 1994 Supplement to the ADA Technical Assistance Manual and its 1996 Guidance on Accessible Stadiums. The TAM Supplement says that sightlines “over spectators who stand” while the 1996 Guidances requires sightlines “between the heads and over the shoulders” of spectators in the row immediately in front of a disabled spectator and over the heads of spectators two rows in front. Although the Department of Justice has recently cleaned up some of its conflicting or redundant pronouncements on the ADA* there has always been an element of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing typical of large organizations of any kind. That problem becomes acute when the observations of a federal agency can trigger millions of dollars in expense for public accommodations and are entitled to deference under Auer and Kisor v. Wilke.
The Court also observed a lack of “anthropometric data,” meaning data about how tall most baseball spectators are, that would be required to provide non-discriminatory views of the field. Short spectators, including children, often can’t see over the heads of tall spectators in front of them even when standing. On the other hand even a modest elevation would probably allow a wheelchair user to see over the heads of a row of short spectators. A specific elevation requirement will always be a compromise, and deciding the right compromise requires knowing average heights and other data about baseball spectators, which may not be the same for football spectators, NASCAR spectators and concert goers, based on age and demographic factors. The ADAAG standards were based on data of this kind that had been collected over decades, and the acquisition and analysis of such data is a perfect example of the tasks regulatory agencies are supposed to engage in, but for whatever reason it appears DOJ and the Access Board have been unwilling or unable to perform that task.
The result – nobody knows who is going to win and it appears that the sightlines issue will be resolved on a stadium by stadium basis after lengthy and possibly very tedious trials at which experts roll out their charts and graphs. However, other federal judges are looking at the same issue for other stadiums and they may reach different conclusions. Stay tuned.