So a Woman and a Kangaroo Walk Into a Bar

kangaroos-service-animalsOn this blog we’ve explored the laws related to service animals and how the ADA’s regulations extend their use far past traditional notions of “seeing eye dogs.” In Wisconsin (admit it, you assumed this blog post was going to have an Aussie connection), a woman is treading new territory by seeking legal recognition to use a kangaroo as a therapy animal. The woman, Diana Moyer, owns several kangaroos and also has a doctor’s note stating that one of the kangaroos—Jimmy—is a therapy animal to assist her in dealing with cancer treatment and depression.

In no way would we ever mock or minimize Ms. Moyer’s medical conditions. Unquestionably, however, her situation raises a number of ADA-related legal issues. First, the ADA does not recognize therapy or companion animals, but rather only service animals that are trained to assist a disabled person. Although this can certainly include mental disabilities, the definition does not extend to animals that provide comfort or emotional support. The ADA also defines service animals to include only dogs and miniature horses. Currently, a vote by the Beaver Dam, Wisconsin City Council is set for June 15, 2015 on an ordinance to allow only ADA approved service animals into restaurants and other public establishments. The City has stated that these restrictions are necessary for resident safety. An adult red kangaroo can grow to over five feet in height and can weigh over one hundred and ninety pounds. They can also leap distances of nearly thirty feet.


Uber’s ADA Conundrum

Uber_ADA_LawsuitsWhen you think of Uber (or similar companies like Lyft and Sidecar) you probably think of a transportation company. You request a ride on the company’s app and a driver (in his own vehicle) picks you up. The nature of the company’s business is, however, the very thing at issue in a series of lawsuits brought against Uber under the ADA. In lawsuits filed in Arizona, California, and Texas, individuals and disability rights organizations have accused Uber of failing to comply with ADA requirements of offering accommodations for the disabled (including individuals who are visually and mobility impaired) in providing transportation services. The accommodations at issue include wheel-chair accessible vehicles, and other features that are required for most taxi companies under various federal, state, and local laws.

What exactly does Uber do?
Uber’s position is that it is a software and technology company, not a “transportation company.” Uber does not own any vehicles, or employ any drivers. Most people know that the “Uber driver” who picks you up is using her personal vehicle. That person is also an “independent contractor” and not an employee of Uber. This goes to the heart of the company’s business model and it is one of the ways it is able to offer services that are, in many cases, more competitive than traditional transportation and ride sharing companies. Although Uber has a code of conduct that prohibits disability discrimination and offers voluntary driver training, it states that the company does not have any legal liability related to the non-compliance of its drivers/independent contractors.


Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: New DOJ Closed-Captioning Rules

closed-caption-ada-regsThe price of movie tickets could be going up soon.  Under new proposed regulations issued by the Department of Justice, movie theaters with digital screens would be required to show  films with options for closed captioning (for hearing impaired patrons) and audio descriptions (for visually impaired patrons).  Movie theaters would not be required to create their own captioning or assistive aids.  Rather, when a movie is available for distribution with closed captioning and audio description, the theater must purchase the version containing these accommodations.  In some circumstances, a theater may show films without these accommodations if a compliant version is not available.  The National Association of Theater Owners has expressed concern that these requirements would potentially drive up costs, as well as harm the ability of small and non-digital theaters to acquire first run movies.


Curb Appeal: Looks Matter When It Comes to the ADA

accessibility-barriersI’m frequently asked two questions by business owners and managers when it comes to ADA compliance and lawsuits.  The first question is, “what type of businesses get sued most often?”  The second question is, “how can I avoid becoming one of those businesses?”  Like many things, the answers to these questions can be complex and involve a lot of variables.  Certainly, for example, businesses that operate in industries that deal heavily with the public, such as retail, hospitality, and banking, are often frequent targets based on the volume of people that come to a business’s facilities to use their services.  Although there is no way to “ADA-proof” a facility, paying close attention to the impression your business gives at a first glance can significantly reduce the likelihood of claims.

“Curb appeal” or how attractive a store or business appears from the street is a frequently overlooked component of a strong defense to ADA public accommodations claims.  There are certainly many situations where a plaintiff arrives at a store to shop and only thinks of an ADA claim when they encounter an unexpected barrier to access.  As many business owners know, however, many ADA claims also result from serial litigation (i.e. cases where the same plaintiff and/or same law firm files dozens of ADA lawsuits in the same city or area).  In such cases, disability rights attorneys work with individuals (in many cases on a regular and repeated basis) to determine suitable targets for such lawsuits.  This process can be as straightforward as having an individual with a disability ride or drive down a street in a business or retail district and search for business with likely violations.  The individual then attempts to enter the facility or use its services and, voila, an ADA claim is born.


Does Your Business Have a Website? Get Ready for New ADA Regulations

ada accessibility for the disabledCourts have wrestled for several years with how to apply the ADA’s public accommodation requirements to online businesses or online aspects of businesses (USA Today published an article and quoted me on the issue available at the link below). The statute itself (enacted in 1990) does not address online businesses, nor do current regulations. Litigation in this area has also produced divergent results. In some cases, federal courts have dismissed such claims holding that online stores and websites are not public accommodations within the meaning of Title III of the ADA. In others, courts have held that commercial websites are a natural extension of the ADA’s accessibility goals and requirements.

The Department of Justice appears poised to address this issue through new regulations governing commercial websites. We anticipate that they may be issued as soon as December 2013 with compliance periods some time thereafter. Although not entirely clear at this point, DOJ will likely use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 created by the World Wide Web Consortium. The new regulations may also utilize portions of already-existing guidelines for government websites contained in Title II of the ADA.


How to Avoid Your Business Becoming an ADA Target

bullseye_targetIt is certainly good to know what to do if your business is served with a lawsuit under the ADA. It is even better to know what steps you can take to help avoid your business becoming a target for these lawsuits in the first place. While there is no way to completely avoid the risk of an ADA lawsuit, taking a few simple (and in many cases low cost) steps can help reduce the risk of appearing as “low hanging fruit” for plaintiffs, plaintiff’s advocacy organizations, and the Department of Justice.

Tip #1: Curb Appeal
We’ve all heard stories of potential plaintiffs simply driving down a major road until they find a likely target. In some cases, the decision may be made before the individual even sets foot on the premises. Avoiding a “lack of compliance” appearance can help your business avoid being the one they choose. This means ensuring that disabled parking spots have clear (not faded) lines, parking signs are erect and not crooked or missing, and debris or merchandise does not block sidewalks and entryways. Old or faded signs and markers signal that your business may not be up to date with its ADA compliance.

Tip #2: Training Matters
Training your employees on how to respond to requests for accommodations or questions about ADA compliance can also help your business avoid lawsuits. Properly trained employees can serve as your first line of defense against claims that your business “failed to accommodate” or allowed violations to exist. Conversely, employees without proper training can exacerbate problems and make ADA lawsuits more likely and harder to defend.


DOJ Ratchets Up ADA Enforcement For Health Care Providers

In 2011, the Department of Justice launched its  “Barrier Free Health Care Initiative.” This Initiative utilizes U.S. Attorneys Offices across the Country to act as a “force multiplier” to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not denied access to health care. The DOJ’s enforcement priorities include situations where an individual is unable to access treatment, care, or services because of physical limitations such as deafness and blindness.

Recently, the DOJ has made equal access for individuals with HIV/AIDS a priority under this initiative. Within the last two months, the Agency has entered into settlement agreements with three different medical providers (a dental office, a clinic that treats eating disorders, and a pain management clinic) based on their alleged failure to provide equal access to patients with HIV. These settlement agreements address alleged unequal treatment in violation of the ADA’s public accommodations requirements. In the case of the dental office, the DOJ objected to the practice allegedly requiring a patient with HIV to schedule appointments only at the end of the day. The eating disorder clinic allegedly delayed and ultimately refused to accept an individual with HIV based on a policy not to accept patients with “high risk communicable diseases.” Finally, the DOJ settled a case involving a pain management center where a referral physician refused to treat a patient with HIV. Importantly, these three examples only highlight recent enforcement actions under this Initiative. The Agency has also targeted medical practices for failure to provide interpreters or other auxiliary aids for the hearing impaired. Each of these settlement agreements required modifications to the health care providers’ practices, as well as significant monetary penalties.


Could Your Banking Website Be The Target of a Lawsuit?

web accessibilityRecently, I was interviewed by for an article on the ADA and website accessibility standards for the deaf and blind (full article here).

Websites are becoming the next frontier in ADA litigation as courts have ruled that it also applies to a company’s website and have held companies liable for difficulties disabled customers experience online. Taking proactive steps to review and modify your company’s website will save you from the price of ADA non-compliance and costly litigation.


The ADA & Athletics: It Applies Here Too

ada sporting eventsWe often think of the ADA’s reach as focused on employment and public accommodations such as hotels and shopping centers. It is, therefore, easy to forget that it also impacts activities. This includes public meetings, conventions—and sporting events.

One of the most well-known sports and disability cases is that of professional golfer Casey Martin. Prior to 2001, the PGA Tour required all tournament participants to walk and barred the use of golf carts. Martin suffers from a degenerative condition that affected his ability to walk that prevented him from competing in PGA events. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, held that the PGA’s policy violated the requirements of the ADA for public accommodations and ordered that Martin must be permitted to use a cart as a public accommodation. Although Martin never qualified for the PGA Tour, this case opened the door to significant questions about the intersection of the ADA and sports. More recently, professional basketball player Royce White has engaged in a very public dispute with his employer, the NBA’s Houston Rockets, over White’s unwillingness to accept an assignment to one of Houston’s farm clubs. White argues that the assignment does not provide adequate support for his disability (i.e. severe anxiety).


Insurance and ADA Public Accommodations Claims

Navigating common insurance issues for claims under Title III of the ADA

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that businesses which offer goods and services to the public (i.e. “public accommodations”) take steps to ensure that their facilities are accessible to individuals with disabilities.  In addition to the ADA’s general accessibility mandate, its governing regulations provide detailed requirements for businesses that range from the minimum number of accessible parking spaces to the height of mirrors and toilets in restrooms.  The failure to comply with these guidelines can lead to lawsuits in federal court.  If you follow this blog, you know that these lawsuits are on the rise across the country.  These lawsuits not only raise liability issues that are different from ADA employment claims, but also distinct considerations concerning insurance coverage.  When analyzing a new ADA Title III case, it is important to consider the following:

1.  What type of claim is this?
ADA public accommodations claims can create confusion when trying to pigeon hole them with respect to insurance coverage.  At first glance, they often appear to be similar to building code violations, or other facilities claims.  Rather, these public accommodations lawsuits are civil rights claims in the same respect as employment-based lawsuits under the ADA.

2. Is there insurance for this claim?
Of course, any question of whether insurance coverage exists for a particular claim must be examined on a policy-by-policy basis.  Generally, however, many business insurance policies do provide coverage for claims brought under Title III of the ADA which allege a failure to provide an accessible facility.