Uber and Lyft have made news for the last couple of years because of allegations that their drivers do not provide appropriate service to disabled individuals.(1) Settlement of a national class action against Uber is awaiting court approval in the Northern District of California,(2) but as recently as October 13 another lawsuit was filed claiming that Uber drivers did not comply with the ADA.(3) Legal arguments about the application of the ADA to app based services using independent contractors are fascinating, but these lawsuits have a much broader importance in the modern gig economy, for increasing numbers of individuals have dropped or been forced out of traditional employment positions and are now on their own, dealing directly with the public and making decisions that may have ADA and fair housing implications.(4)
One of the persistent myths about the ADA is that it only applies to businesses of a certain size, and many indivduals operating solo businesses assume that they are just too small for the ADA to apply to them. The confusion comes because Title I of the ADA, concerning employment, is limited to businesses with more than 15 employees. Title III of the ADA, which governs the interactions of a business with the public, has no such limitation. The homeless man who washes your windshield at a stop light and hopes for a few bucks as a tip is just as much a “public accommodation” subject to Title III of the ADA as a Walmart or a Holiday Inn hotel.(5) In a gig economy the freedom that comes with working for yourself is accompanied by a legal obligation to those with disabilities that may be hard to understand. Here are just a few examples:
- Internet sellers have varying degrees of control over the websites they use to display their goods and receive payment, and may not understand that the very act of selling makes them public accommodations with some obligation to sell through accessible websites. You don’t have to be a Kardashian to be sued under the ADA for having an inaccessible website.(6)
- Ride share drivers are public accommodations just like the companies they contract with. The first target of a lawsuit will usually be Uber or Lyft or a similar organization for the very good reason they are bigger and have more money, but individual drivers can be targets as well.
- Boutique bakers, brewers and pastry chefs operating out of a tiny storefront or old house may discover the ADA requires that their premises be accessible.
- Freelance yoga instructors may need to consider what they will do when a student with physical or intellectual impairments wants to join their class in the park.
The ADA and the ADAAG and 2010 Standards make a nod toward small businesses, and the hypothetical, long awaited DOJ regulations concerning internet accessibility may as well, but the ADA and existing regulations were not written with the gig economy or the possibility of internet businesses in mind. Unless and until new regulations are issued, which is years away at best, folks who have embarked on independent careers working for themselves should carefully consider what their ADA obligations might be.(7)