Sports Facilities and the ADA

 

SPORTS FACILITIES AND THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT

by Chris McKinny, Managing Editor, Marquette Sports Law Review
(NSLI Research Assistant)

I. Introduction 

The following is a list of case summaries presented in chronological order and covering the major sports facility cases that have arisen after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Most of the disputes are claims by disabled individuals and groups that certain sports facilities are not in compliance with the ADA in some respect.

II. Case Summaries 

Paralyzed Veterans of America v. Ellerbe Becket Architects & Engineers, 945 F. Supp. 1 (D.D.C. July 29, 1996). 
The plaintiffs, a nationwide membership organization chartered by Congress following World War II (almost all members are wheelchair users), filed suit against the architects who designed the MCI Center, a sporting and entertainment venue located in Washington, D.C. 

The plaintiff's had expressed an interest in attending events at the MCI Center, but claimed that their enjoyment of the facilities would be hampered if the seating bowl were built as originally designed. Additionally, the plaintiff's also claimed that the structure would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As originally filed, the plaintiff's sought declaratory and injunctive relief under sections 302(a) (which states that "no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of...any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases...or operates a place of public accommodation") and 303 of the ADA (which states that "as applied to public accommodations and commercial facilities, discrimination for purposes of section 302 (a) includes...a failure to design and construct facilities...that are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities"). The plaintiff's claimed that because § 303 mentions the design function, the provision must encompass architects. 

In response, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that "the ADA does not hold architects liable for the design and construction of facilities in violation of the statute's provisions." 

The court ultimately found for the defendant, holding that the phrase "design and construct" was on its face conjunctive, meaning that only those parties that are responsible for both of these activities are liable under the ADA. The court found that Congress' intent was unambiguous, and thus, in this case, the architects were found to be immune from liability. 

Paralyzed Veterans of America v. Ellerbe Becket Architects & Engineers, 950 F. Supp. 389 (D.D.C. December 20, 1996). 
In this case, the plaintiffs, once again the Paralyzed Veterans of America organization, filed suit against the company that designed and constructed the MCI Center in Washington, D.C, alleging that the wheelchair seating locations designed for the arena violated the ADA. Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that the ADA required that "enhanced sightlines" be provided to those spectators who use wheelchairs. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the ADA does not require arenas to provide wheelchair seat locations with lines of sight over standing spectators. Additionally, the defendants argued that the then "current" design of the MCI center already "substantially complied" with the ADA. 

The court ultimately denied the defendants motion for summary judgment, and found that as a matter of law, the ADA did indeed require enhanced sightlines to be available for "substantially all wheelchair locations in a new arena." According to the court, on several occasions the Justice Department had interpreted the ADA to require enhanced sightlines for the disabled at newly constructed facilities. The court emphasized the importance of deferring to the Justice Department's interpretation of its own regulations. According to the court, "[a]n agency is empowered to interpret its own regulations so long as such interpretation is reasonable in light of the text and purpose of the statute and consistent with the statute and regulation." With this idea in mind, the court declared the Justice Department's interpretation of the ADA reasonable, and thus ordered the defendants to construct "an arena in which substantially all wheelchair locations have an enhanced line of sight over standing spectators."

Paralyzed Veterans of America v. Ellerbe Becket Architects & Engineers, 950 F. Supp. 393 (D.D.C. December 20, 1996). 
In this case, the court sought to determine whether the MCI Center as constructed actually complied with the ADA. "Specifically, the parties disagree[d] on the number of seats that must provide...'enhanced' sightlines, on the required dispersal of those seats, on whether operational measures can be employed to create satisfactory sightlines, and on whether spaces in luxury suites can be counted towards the required number of enhanced sightline seats." 

The court found that the then current designs of the MCI Center "would not be 'readily accessible and usable by' wheelchair users, as is required by the ADA." The court concluded that although the MCI Center's seating bowl complied with the ADA's integration element, the MCI Center failed to comply with the ADA's sightline and dispersal elements. Thus, the court "ordered that the defendants are permanently and affirmatively enjoined to design and construct the facility in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act..." and required the defendants to submit a plan for compliance within thirty days following its decision. That plan, which provided sightlines over standing spectators in approximately 85% of the wheelchair seating, was subsequently approved by the judge. 

Johanson v. Huizenga Holdings, Inc., 963 F. Supp. 1175 (S.D. Fla. January 27, 1997). 
In this case, the plaintiff's, a disabled minor, his father, and another disabled minor, filed a complaint against the owner of the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers, alleging that as designed, the Broward Arena (the then future home of the Panthers) would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. The plaintiffs, who were occasional purchasers of Panthers tickets, sought declaratory and injunctive relief "to address and rectify the discrimination which they believe[d] they [would] face upon construction of the new Arena." Conversely, the defendants moved to have the case dismissed. 

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida refused to follow the court's opinion in Paralyzed Veterans of America v. Ellerbe Becket Architects and Engineers, 945 F. Supp. 1 (D.D.C. 1996), and instead felt that the plaintiff's argument that architects must be held liable under the ADA was sufficient to withstand the defendants motion to dismiss. 

Caruso v. Blockbuster-Sony Music Entertainment Centre, 968 F. Supp. 210 (D. N.J. June 27, 1997). 
The plaintiff's in this case, William Caruso and the Advocates for Disabled Americans, filed a complaint alleging that the defendant's multi-purpose E-Centre Facility, which hosted events such as sporting contests and concerts, did not comply with the public accommodations provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Specifically, Caruso alleged that (1) he could not see the event he had attended because the E-Centre did not provide enhanced sight lines for the disabled, and (2) because of his disability, he could not access the E-Centre's lawn area. In support of the first argument, the plaintiff's relied upon the 1994 Department of Justice Technical Assistance Manual, which stated; "the wheelchair locations must provide lines of sight over spectators who stand." The defendants countered by filing a motion for partial summary judgment based upon two main contentions; (1) the ADA cannot be read to require "enhanced" sight lines for the disabled, and (2) even if such a provision had in fact existed, it would still be inapplicable due to the fact that it was issued after construction on the E-Centre had already began. 

The court ultimately granted the defendant's motion for partial summary judgment, holding that (1) because the Department of Justice Technical Assistance Manual is akin to a legislative rule, it cannot be passed without proper notice and comment procedures, and (2) at the time construction on the E-Centre took place, the defendant's had no way of anticipating that the "enhanced sight line" requirement would be applicable to them. Thus, because the court believed that due process standards had not been followed by the Department of Justice, it concluded that the Technical Assistance Manual could not be held applicable. In regard to the lawn seating issue, the court concluded that because lawn seating is not fixed seating, it need not be included in any calculation of minimum wheelchair space requirements. 

Paralyzed Veterans of America v. D.C. Arena L.P., 326 U.S. App. D.C. 25 (D.D.C. July 1, 1997). 
This case was the defendants appeal of Paralyzed Veterans of America v. Ellerbe Becket Architects & Engineers, 950 F. Supp. 393 (D.C. Cir. 1996). The only issue on appeal was whether the district court had been correct in concluding that the defendants had failed to comply with the ADA in terms of sightline requirements. On appeal, the defendants argued that the district court erred by requiring any sightlines over standing spectators. Conversely, the plaintiffs believed that the district court had erred by not requiring that all wheelchair seating have such sightlines. 

In affirming the opinion of the district court, the court of appeals found that the district court had properly shown a tremendous amount of deference to the Justice Department's interpretation of the ADA. The court concluded that while the Department of Justice's position on the "line of sight" requirement in the district court case may have represented a mild departure from previous interpretations, it was not so severe of a departure as to be considered an amendment. Thus, notice and comment were not required of the Department of Justice. 

United States of America v. Ellerbe Becket, Inc., 976 F. Supp. 1262 (D. Minn. September 30, 1997). 
This action, filed by the United States of America against Ellerbe Becket, Inc., an architectural firm, alleged that Ellerbe Becket had engaged in a pattern of designing new sports facilities that failed to comply with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Specifically, the United States alleged that Ellerbe Becket repeatedly failed to design facilities that provided wheelchair users with sight lines comparable to those of "non-disabled" spectators. The United States sought civil penalties and an injunction against Ellerbe Becket to prevent them from continuing to design facilities that do not comply with the ADA. 

Ellerbe Becket filed a motion to dismiss arguing that as a matter of law, architects are immune from the requirements of the ADA. Their argument was that in order to be subject to liability, a defendant would have to both design and build the facility in question. As an architectural firm, Ellerbe Becket simply designed the facilities, it did not build them. Conversely, the United States argued that mere designers should be subject to liability under the ADA because any other conclusion would mean that only those parties that own, operate or lease places of public accommodation would be liable, thus rendering the inclusion of commercial facilities in the ADA meaningless. 

The court ultimately found the United States' interpretation of the ADA more persuasive, based largely upon the fact that statutory language contained within the ADA clearly showed Congress' intent to subject commercial facilities to liability under the ADA. While admitting that Ellerbe did indeed raise some serious public policy concerns about subjecting architects to ADA requirements, the court nonetheless concluded that it was the job of Congress, not the courts, to consider public policy arguments. Courts merely have the ability to interpret the plain meaning of statutory language, not determine public policy. Thus, the court ultimately denied Ellerbe's motion to dismiss. 

Independent Living Resources v. Oregon Arena Corp., 982 F. Supp. 698 (D. Or. November 12, 1997). 
The focus of this case was the Rose Garden, a multi-purpose (sports, entertainment, etc.) facility located in Portland, Oregon. The plaintiffs, Robert Pike, a disabled attorney, and Independent Living Resources, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the disabled, filed suit against the owners and operators of the Rose Garden for what they believed to be violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to Department of Justice Regulations, for facilities with seating capacities of over 500, the number of wheelchair spaces provided must be equal to one percent of the total seating capacity plus one additional wheelchair space. The plaintiffs alleged that the Rose Garden failed to meet this "one percent plus one requirement." While both parties agreed that while on paper 191 wheelchair spaces existed at the Rose Garden, the plaintiffs contended that many of these spaces existed only on paper, not in actuality. Additionally, the plaintiffs alleged "that the wheelchair spaces are improperly concentrated in 'wheelchair ghettos' in comparatively undesirable locations of the arena." 

In an extremely complicated opinion, the court concluded several things. First, the court found that the Rose Garden had not satisfied the "one percent plus one requirement." Second, the court found that the seat dispersal in the Rose Garden violated the ADA (specifically, "placement of 33 wheelchair spaces on level 7 of arena violated requirements under ADA for dispersal of seating for disabled at place of public accommodation"). Thus, both parties motions for summary judgment were granted in part and denied in part. 

Washington Sports and Entertainment, Inc. v. Coastal Insurance, Co., 7 F. Supp. 2d 1 (D.D.C. February 23, 1998), cert. denied, 523 U.S. 1003 (1998). 
This case, which also arose out of the building of the MCI Center in Washington D.C., involved the plaintiffs, who were the owners and operators of the MCI Center, and the defendants, the Arizona corporation United Coastal Insurance Co., which had provided insurance to the plaintiffs. After the Paralyzed Veterans Association successfully sued the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs sought to enforce the insurance contract that they had entered into with the defendants. "The insurance policy in questioned containe[d] clauses that obligate[d] defendant both to defend and to indemnify its insureds. Defendant refused to defend plaintiffs against the PVA claim," contending that any such defense would be outside the scope of the plaintiff's coverage. Thus, the plaintiff's sued the defendant, seeking declaratory judgments that (1) the defendant had a duty to defend them, (2) the defendant had a duty to indemnify them for losses, (3) the defendant breached its contract with the plaintiffs, (4) the defendant acted in bad faith, and (5) the defendant breached its fiduciary duty to the plaintiff. Conversely, the defendant moved the court to dismiss the plaintiffs complaint. 

In a relatively brief opinion, the court concluded that the defendant was obligated to defend the plaintiffs in the Paralyzed Veterans case under the terms of their contract. While the policy in question may not have covered all of the specific claims that had been brought against the plaintiff in the Paralyzed Veterans case, the policy was broad enough to "trigger a duty to defend the entire claim." The plaintiff provided the defendant with adequate notice of the claim, and did not "misrepresent the risk the risk of an ADA violation in their application for coverage...." Thus, no omission by the plaintiff rendered their contract with the defendant void.

Independent Living Resources v. Oregon Arena Corp., 1 F. Supp. 2d 1124 (D. Or. March 25, 1998). 
This case was a follow up to the original Independent Living Resources case, and discussed a number of ancillary issues that were not entirely resolved the first time the case was litigated. For example, this opinion discussed whether such things as coat hooks, fire extinguishers, telephones, bathroom mirrors, and a plethora of other objects contained within the Rose Garden were in compliance with the ADA. For those items that the court found to be in violation of the ADA, it instructed the arena's operators on what steps they could take in order to comply with the ADA's terms.

Independent Living Resources v. Oregon Arena Corp., 1 F. Supp. 2d 1159 (D. Or. April 7, 1998). 
Much like the previously listed portion of the Independent Living Resources saga, this installment also discussed the Rose Garden's attempts at complying with the requirements of the ADA. Specifically, this case discussed wheelchair and aisle seating compliance. In both of these areas, the court found that the Rose Garden, while having made some progress in terms of ADA compliance, still needed to make some additional changes. Once again, the court outlined what changes needed to be made and gave the defendant specific instructions on when these changes needed to be made by.

Caruso v. Blockbuster-Sony Music Entertainment Centre, 174 F.3d 166 (3d. Cir. April 6, 1999).
This case, an appeal from the original Caruso case, upheld the district court's determination that the Department of Justice Technical Assistance Manual could not be held applicable to the builders of the E-Centre because proper notice and comment procedures were not complied with, but overruled the district court's holding that lawn seating need not be included in the calculation of wheelchair space requirements. According to the court of appeals, the district court had misconstrued the plaintiffs argument. The court of appeals found that the plaintiff had merely requested that an accessible route be made to the lawn area, not that the E-Centre be required to construct wheelchair seating. After clearing up this mistake, the court of appeals stated: "Caruso is entitled to such a route under the regulations regardless of whether or not the facility is also required to meet the more specific DOJ Standards concerning fixed seating plans." 

Caruso v. Blockbuster-Sony Music Entertainment Centre, 193 F.3d 730 (3rd Cir. November 5, 1999). 
This case was the consolidation and final disposition of the previous Caruso opinions. On appeal, two issues remained; (1) were the defendants required to provide wheelchair users with lines of sight over standing spectators, and (2)were the defendants required to ensure that the lawn portion of the facility was wheelchair accessible. In regard to the first issue, the court of appeals concluded that "an agency is not allowed to change a legislative rule retroactively through the process of disingenuous interpretation of the rule to mean something other than its original meaning," and thus affirmed the portion of the district court's opinion finding that under the ADA, the defendant was not required to provide sight lines over standing spectators. Conversely, the court of appeals reversed the district court's conclusion that the E-Centre was not required to provide wheelchair access to the lawn-seating area. In the words of the court of appeals, "[t]he District Court, in concluding that the E-Centre had not violated Title III by failing to provide access to the lawn area, appeared to give precisely the type of justification that the DOJ commentary finds repugnant to the ADA...." Thus, the court of appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case back to the district court.

Access Now, Inc. v. South Florida Stadium Corp., 161 F. Supp. 2d 1357 (S.D. Fla. September 10, 2001). 
The plaintiff, Edward Resnick, a quadriplegic restricted to a wheelchair, was the president of Access Now, a non-profit corporation seeking to bring businesses into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The defendant, the South Florida Stadium Corporation, is a privately-held corporation that owns the Miami Dolphins, the Florida Marlins and Proplayer Stadium. Proplayer Stadium, a place of public accommodation under the ADA's definition of the term, was constructed in 1987, prior to the passage of the ADA. 

Resnick alleged that the defendants were operating Proplayer Stadium in a discriminatory manner in violation of the ADA. Specifically, Resnick contended that Proplayer had "fail[ed] to provide unobstructed lines of sight for wheelchair seating; fail[ed] to provide the required number of wheelchair accessible locations; fail[ed] to integrate unobstructed-sight seating into the overall seating plan; fail[ed] to provide the appropriate number of accessible parking spaces; and various other violations, relating to picnic and food service areas, and restrooms." Thus, the plaintiff contended that the defendant must be ordered to make the necessary architectural changes to Proplayer Stadium to insure its compliance with the ADA. In response, the defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that (1) neither Resnick nor his association had standing to sue, (2) Proplayer stadium did not present any architectural barriers to the disabled, (3) even if such barriers did in fact exist, remedying them would not be feasible, and (4) that they had "met and exceeded their obligations under the ADA." 

The court concluded that Resnick was indeed denied "full and equal enjoyment of the services or privileges of the Stadium because of his disability." However, the court ultimately found for the defendant because the plaintiff had requested that the defendant make changes to Proplayer Stadium which under the ADA it had no legal obligation to make. While the plaintiff was able to offer suggestions as to how Proplayer Stadium could be improved from a disabled spectators standpoint, he could not point to any potential or actual ADA violations by the defendant. Thus, the court ultimately granted the defendants motion for summary judgment.

III. Conclusion

If any one principle can be deduced from the aforementioned case summaries, it is that ADA law is quite unpredictable. Determinations of compliance are quite subjective due to their fact intensive nature, thus, case outcomes are difficult to predict.