F&R, DREDF submit amicus brief in support of proactive ADA enforcement.

Fox & Robertson, along with Michelle Uzeta of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (“DREDF”) drafted an amicus — or “friend of the court” — brief to the Ninth Circuit supporting the time-honored and effective civil rights enforcement technique called “testing.” The amici filing the brief were DREDF, the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (“CREEC”) as well as four disabled women who both need accessible businesses and facilities and have served as testers: Corbett O’Toole, Julie Reiskin, Ann Cupolo-Freeman, and Ruthee Goldkorn.

The Ninth Circuit recently issued a decision in the case of Langer v. Kiser, 57 F. 4th 1085 (9th Cir. 2023), strongly supporting civil rights testing in the context of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits disability discrimination by places of public accommodation. In response, the defendant business — and several supporting businesses and trade associations as amici — are petitioning the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case. Our brief asks the court to deny that petition.

We were inspired to write by the truly astonishing level of invective and baloney in the petition and amicus briefs urging rehearing. Title III testing involves people with disabilities intentionally putting themselves in a situation to experience, observe, and challenge discrimination. Given the vast number of businesses and facilities governed by Title III, testing is essential to full compliance, so people with disabilities can go about their days integrated and included in our society.

In this case, the plaintiff, Chris Langer, is a wheelchair-user who attempted to patronize a lobster shop in San Diego, but was unable to park due to the lack of accessible spaces. Mr. Langer sued the owners of the shop in 2018 and — rather than applying a bit of paint to asphalt to bring their parking lot into compliance — the owners fought back, challenging Mr. Langer’s standing to sue, that is, his right to be in court in the first place. They did not claim that their parking lot was accessible or vow to correct their violations; they just wanted to take away Mr. Langer’s right to challenge those violations and, along with it, both the rights of other plaintiffs to challenge other Title III violations and the rights of people with disabilities in general to use and enjoy the accessible facilities that result from these lawsuits.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision — almost precisely five years after the case was filed — strongly upheld Mr. Langer’s standing as both a patron and a tester, holding that “a plaintiff’s motive for going to a place of public accommodation is irrelevant to standing.” Langer, 57 F.4th at 1084.

In response to this clear and well-supported decision, the defendants asked the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case, and gathered four sets of amici to support them. These briefs were an eyebrow-raising collection of misconstruction and mud-slinging. Lawyers who represent disabled plaintiffs in Title III cases are “unscrupulous,” “opportunistic” and “predatory,” engaging in a “transfer of wealth.” Curiously, they call Title III litigation “meritless” and “baseless” without any argument or evidence to suggest that either the Kisers’ premises or the facilities in the cases they rely on are actually in compliance — 30 years after the deadline for compliance.

So much vitriol – so little substance!

Our amicus brief pushed back hard — not with the counter-invective that hilariously populated the authors’ text threads, but with fact and law. From our brief:

  • Congress chose to make private enforcement “the primary method of obtaining compliance with the [ADA].” Doran v. 7-Eleven, Inc., 524 F.3d 1034, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting Trafficante v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 409 U.S. 205, 209 (1972)).
  • Based on barriers to the courthouse, “the ADA remains a chronically under-enforced statute.”
  • The “ADA regulates more than 600,000 businesses, [and] 5 million places of public accommodation.”
  • Testers have been widely accepted as enforcers of civil rights starting with Black people intentionally riding a segregated bus or using a whites-only waiting room. Evers v. Dwyer, 358 U.S. 202, 204 (1958); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 558 (1967). 
  • People with disabilities have been granted standing to challenge architectural barriers in decisions around the country — and previously in the Ninth Circuit. Suárez-Torres v. Panaderia Y Reposteria España, Inc., 988 F.3d 542, 551 (1st Cir. 2021); Mosley v. Kohl’s Dep’t Stores, Inc., 942 F.3d 752, 758 (6th Cir. 2019); Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center v. Hospitality Properties Trust, 867 F.3d 1093 (9th Cir. 2017); Nanni v. Aberdeen Marketplace, Inc., 878 F.3d 447, 457 (4th Cir. 2017); Colorado Cross Disability Coal. v. Abercrombie & Fitch Co., 765 F.3d 1205, 1211 (10th Cir. 2014); Houston v. Marod Supermarkets, Inc., 733 F.3d 1323, 1332 (11th Cir. 2013); Harty v. Simon Prop. Grp., L.P., 428 F. App’x 69, 71 (2d Cir. 2011.)

We explained the value of testing in terms of the everyday experience of the amici:

It is the experience of the Individual Amici that illegal barriers are a routine impediment to their professional and personal lives. By the time a wheelchair-user arrives at a public accommodation, hoping to enjoy its goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations, it’s too late for a lawsuit to be much use. You roll up to a place that should have been made accessible some time in the past 30 years only to discover that you can’t park, or you can’t get in the door, or you can’t use the restroom, or – in the case of the Individual Amici in the CREEC case – you can’t get from the airport to your hotel because the hotel’s van is inaccessible. The fact that you just achieved an injury-in-fact and an admit-one ticket to federal court does not let you park, or get in the door, or use the restroom, or get to your hotel.

Testers help solve this problem. Wheelchair-users who are intentional about investigating and challenging barriers can help move our society toward a time when they and others can go about their daily lives expecting and finding access to a wide range of facilities. . .

Throughout its decision, the Ninth Circuit cited to and relied on the CREEC case which was brought by (as the name suggests) CREEC, as well as the individual amici Corbett O’Toole, Julie Reiskin, Ann Cupolo-Freeman, and Ruthee Goldkorn. Because of their crucial role in the case on which the Ninth Circuit relied, these four women, along with CREEC and DREDF, were the amici asking the Court to turn away from the business-side invective and uphold an important tool for civil rights enforcement.

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