On January 23 the Lee Litigation Group and Scott Dinan, who frequently represent plaintiffs in ADA matters, filed suit against the producers, theater owners and others involved in the musical Hamilton. Their claim is that by failing to provide audio description* for their blind client the defendants violated the ADA. The Complaint, which can be read here, alleges both a violation of the general anti-discrimination provisions of the ADA and the specific requirement that public accommodations provide auxiliary aids. It points out, correctly, that in November of 2016 the Department of Justice issued regulations requiring audio description decoding equipment for movie theaters. Why not, it asks, require the same for theatrical productions? 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
Three interesting decisions, and a news report were published last week that deserve attention, but really don’t need a lengthy discussion. First, in Natl. Assn. of the Deaf v. Harvard U., 2016 WL 6540446, at *2 (D. Mass. Nov. 3, 2016) the Court adopted the earlier Magistrate Judge’s recommendation against dismissal claims against Harvard for failing to caption its on-line video courses. The case will now continue into discovery or, more likely, settle as the costs of defense become unreasonable when compared to the cost of settlement. A related news story , Pitt Professor Sues Southside Works Cinema discusses a lawsuit based on the lack of closed captioning at a local movie theater. As with internet access, closed captioning in theaters is an area in which DOJ’s failure to regulate has created a situation in which litigation is going to define the requirements of the ADA because DOJ is incapable of figuring out how to make a good rule. I’m sympathetic to the difficulties face by DOJ after reading through the mass of requirements imposed on the regulatory process (see, Fed. Reg. vol. 79, pages 44976 to 44514), but these regulations were first announced in 2010. The regulatory process simply cannot keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, and so DOJ has adopted the far more inefficient and regulatory method of letting the requirements of the ADA be set through hundreds of different judicial decisions whose outcome depends not only on the quality of the judge, but also the quality and position of the litigants. If DOJ cannot regulate the details of accessibility, it should at least provide that accessibility is not required until those details are provided.
The inefficiency and sometimes outright stupidity of ADA litigation is perfectly illustrated by Love v. Sanchez, 2016 WL 6683152 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 14, 2016). The plaintiff alleged, correctly, that the defendant lacked accessible parking. Defendant provided a space, but did it wrong. Plaintiff obtained an expert report to that effect and filed a motion for summary judgment. Defendant hired an expert and made the space compliant except, perhaps, for slightly excessive cross slopes at two locations. Plaintiff hired a new expert who found those excessive cross-slopes. Defendant’s expert disagreed and, at the end of the day, the Court denied the motion for summary judgment because it could not determine the fact question as to which expert was right.
Conceding that the lawsuit had the beneficial effect of persuading the defendant to put in an accessible spot, consider the time and money spent afterwards quibbling about the difference between a 2.8% and 2.0% cross slope. The plaintiff’s motive was simple. His attorneys would not be paid unless they won. The defendant’s motive was equally simple. Losing would more than double his liability because he would also have to pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. The focus of the lawsuit, almost from the beginning, was on payment for the attorneys, not accessibility for the disabled. This is a perpetual theme in ADA litigation, with access for the disabled usually taking second place to profits for the lawyers.
A third decision concerned public restrooms; or more accurately, a former public restroom. In Ramirez v. Golden Crème Donuts et al., 2016 WL 6648699 (9th Cir. Nov. 10, 2016) the Ninth Circuit reminded us that the ADA does not require public restrooms in public accommodations, and that closing a restroom to the public is one way to solve the problem of non-compliant restrooms. This is true even when local ordinances may require public restrooms because compliance with local law is a matter between the business and local authorities in which the federal courts will not ordinarily participate. Restroom renovation is frequently the most complex and expensive part of ADA compliance, so the quick fix of closing the restroom may be a good option in avoiding litigation even though in the long run the expense is unavoidable.
20 or more times a day an ADA claim is filed in Federal Court somewhere in the United States. This has been true for decades, and yet non-compliance appears to be as prevalent as ever. Maybe it’s time to re-think the way the ADA is enforced.