Accessibility suit vs Kohl’s can proceed; Judge: Moveable displays can be 'architectural barriers'

By DM Herra | Feb 13, 2018

A woman may proceed with her lawsuit claiming the layout of a Kohl’s store makes the store inaccessible to people with disabilities.

The plaintiff, Patricia Thomas, was originally one of six people who attempted to file a nationwide class action against the department store chain through the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group the Equal Rights Center. Last August, U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman separated the cases and instructed each plaintiff to pursue their own case in different jurisdictions.

All six plaintiffs accused Kohl’s stores across the country of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires public places, such as retail stores, to provide people with disabilities the same access as those without.

Kohl’s filed for summary judgment in Thomas’ case against its store in Redlands, Calif. U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve granted summary judgment for Kohl’s Corporation, but is allowing the case to proceed against Kohl’s Department Stores Inc.

Thomas, who has multiple sclerosis, typically uses a walker or scooter. She claims she visited the Redland Kohl’s store on three separate occasions between January 2014 and September 2015, and on each occasion was unable to access merchandise.

Kohl’s has Shopability Standards that set the minimum width of an aisle at 32 to 36 inches, depending on the department, but Thomas said her 22-inch-wide scooter was unable to get around some moveable displays. On her third visit to the store, she used a wheelchair provided by the store and claimed she was unable to go down the shoe aisles or watch aisle.

In moving for summary judgment, Kohl’s argued that moveable displays and racks are not subject to spacing requirements laid out by the Americans with Disabilities Act because they are not “architectural barriers” as specified in the act. The retailer also argued that Thomas took no measurements on her visits to the store so could not testify accurately to the spacing between and around the moveable displays.

St. Eve said moveable displays are governed by the ADA under the more general “readily achievable” standard and that Thomas was not required to bolster her personal experience with measurements. She also noted the corporate standards guide containing Kohl’s “fixture guidelines” defines fixtures as mobile or temporary displays, as well as permanent racks.

The court also ruled Thomas’ requests of the store – that it enforce Kohl’s corporate Shopability Standards, that it systematically measure spaces between merchandise displays and that it improve employee training to ensure compliance with the ADA – are reasonable and readily achievable as stated in the act.

“Thomas has set forth a plausible proposal for barrier removal which, on its face, will not cost more than its benefits,” the judge wrote.

St. Eve noted that Kohl’s has not rebutted Thomas’ proposal, but contends the ADA claims fail because Kohl’s employees are available to assist customers with retrieving merchandise. However, the court said the customer service defense does not apply when the removal of the architectural barriers is easily achievable.

Thomas is represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Robbins, Salomon & Patt Ltd., of Chicago, and with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, of Washington, D.C.

Kohl’s is represented by the firm of Baker & Hostetler LLP, of Chicago.

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Baker & Hostetler Llp Kohl's Department Stores Robbins, Salomon & Patt, Ltd U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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