Wednesday Federal Employment Law Update- Public Access under the ADA

Hello all, and welcome back for your Wednesday dose of Federal Employment Law!  Today we will discuss a case dealing with a part of the Americans with Disabilities Act which does not pertain to employment, but rather to the public at large.  In Meagley v. City of Little Rock, 2011 WL 1631714 (8th Cir. May 2, 2011), the Eighth Circuit affirmed a District Court ruling for the Defendant on three issues in a case involving public access at the Little Rock Zoo. 

In 2007, Plaintiff Meagley visited the zoo.  Meagley is described as a 300 lb. person with difficulty walking long distances.  No other disabilities are noted.  Since the zoo covers a large parcel of land and potentially calls for extensive walking, the zoo offers patrons the option of renting a motorized scooter for $20 for 2 hours plus $5 per each additional hour.  This is the fee charged to all patrons and patrons are of course welcome to bring their own devices to the zoo.   The zoo’s standard practice when renting scooters was to have a guest services representative explain how to use the scooter, to warn users to slow down when traveling over inclines and to notice when scooter use was prohibited. 

Meagley rented a motorized scooter.   There was no evidence in the record confirming that she received instructions on how to use it.  As she was traversing a foot bridge near one of the zoo’s exhibits, her scooter tipped over, injuring her back, hips and ribs.  At a later time, the City implemented a policy of requiring scooter renters to sign a release waiving tort claims.

Meagley sued the City under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, claiming that the bridge contained an excessive incline  in violation of the statutes.  She further claimed that the rental fee was an impermissible surcharge under the ADA.  Finally, she claimed that the zoo’s liability waiver policy violated the ADA even though it was not in place at the time of her accident.

At trial, the District Court found that the incline levels indeed exceeded permissible limits under ADA regulations.  However, the District Court found for the City because Meagley failed to meet her burden of establishing the City’s “deliberate indifference” toward the regulations in order to receive compensatory damages.  The District Court also found that the rental fee was non-discriminatory because it was applied evenly to all patrons, and patrons were also free to bring their own equipment.  Finally, the trial court stated that Meagley lacked standing to challenge the waiver policy since it was never applied to her.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed in all respects.  The main issue related to the legal standard applied to Meagley’s claim for compensatory damages.  The Eighth Circuit confirmed that the “deliberate indifference” standard was correct, and that Meagley failed to meet that standard.  The record evidence showed that the zoo had procured an evaluation of its facilities for ADA compliance, which did not reveal any problem with the subject bridge.  Accordingly, there was no intentional misconduct by the City.  The Eighth Circuit succinctly affirmed on the other two issues.

 The courts got this one right.  While claims for negligent maintenance of the bridge could have been brought, this was clearly not a case of disability discrimination.   For starters, it is not clear to me what Meagley’s disability was in the first place.  This sounds like a typical attorney-driven claim since the statutes involved have prevailing party attorney fee provisions.  I doubt Ms. Meagley wanted to spend years of her life litigating to get her $20 rental fee returned to her.   

DISCLOSURE:

THE COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG DO NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE.  NOR DO THEY CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.  They are provided for informational purposes only.  Actual legal advice can only be provided after consultation with an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction. 
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