A federal judge has shut down a disability discrimination lawsuit against Groupon, saying the online bargains site should not be considered a place of public accommodations, and so can’t be required to sell tickets for event seating or vouchers for hotel rooms accessible to those with disabilities.
On July 30, U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang granted Chicago-based Groupon’s request to dismiss the lawsuit brought by plaintiff Andrew Huzar, who claimed the online seller violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not offering him and others with disabilities an equal chance to purchase events seating and lodging they could access.
“…For both tickets and hotel rooms, the plain text of the regulation recognizes the difference between the public accommodation and third-party sellers,” Chang wrote. “Indeed, several of the directives could not reasonably be fulfilled by a third-party like Groupon, which is not in control of the venue or the entire block of rooms or tickets.
“Groupon is not covered by the regulation.”
Nearly a year ago, in August 2017, attorneys from the New Orleans-based firm of Bizer & DeReus and the Law Office of Charles E. McElvenny, of Chicago, had filed suit on behalf of Huzar in Chicago federal court, asking the judge to approve a class action on behalf of people with disabilities who unsuccessfully attempted to find accessible accommodations on Groupon.
According to the original complaint, Huzar, who has spina bifida, attempted in 2015 to purchase accessible hotel rooms at a Red Lion Hotel in Harrisburg, Penn., using a Groupon Getaway Deal. However, he learned the site did not offer any options for such accessible rooms.
“I’m sorry, unfortunately handicap-accessible rooms are not available,” Groupon wrote via email, per the complaint.
He again tried Groupon a few weeks later, to attempt to buy tickets to New York Jets football games at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, but was again told Groupon was not selling any tickets designated as being accessible for patrons in wheelchairs, and did not “have any method for patrons with disabilities to purchase tickets.”
Huzar asserted offering such accessible options “would not place an undue burden on Groupon.” And while Groupon does not own or operate the venues to which it sells tickets or lodging, Huzar’s lawyers argued the Groupon website “serves as a nexus or conduct” through which people obtain access to the otherwise public accommodations, and so must be required to comply with the ADA’s rules regarding equal opportunities for access for those with disabilities.
Judge Chang, however, sided with Groupon, saying for the purposes of the ADA, Groupon should be treated as a third-party seller of goods and services, as it does not operate any particular place of public accommodation, like a hotel or sports stadium.
Judge Chang cited the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in a legal action brought by a group of Chicago area suburban communities against Expedia and other online travel reservation sites, asserting they owed unpaid hotel taxes as “operators” of hotels, as defined by the law. In that case, however, the Seventh Circuit found the online travel booking sites served just one purpose – reservations – and so could not be considered “operators” for the purposes of the tax law.
“Just so here: Groupon sells some of the Red Lion Hotel’s room reservations and some of MetLife Stadium’s Jets tickets, but it does not “operate” the hotel or the stadium (or the Jets),” Judge Chang wrote.
The judge also specifically rejected Huzar’s “nexus” theory, saying it doesn’t apply under the ADA, which included language to forestall the possibility only that owners of public accommodations would attempt to skirt the requirement to offer equal access through an off-site location or online site. In this case, the judge noted, accessible rooms and seating were available at the hotel and the stadium, even though they were not offered for sale by Groupon.
“…There is no free-standing theory of liability under the ADA that ensnares anyone who ‘serves as a nexus or conduit for individuals to obtain access to places of public accommodation and is directly linked to places of public accommodation,’” the judge wrote.
The judge gave Huzar until Aug. 20 to amend his complaint to address the shortcomings identified by the judge. If he does not, the case will be considered to have been dismissed with prejudice.
Groupon is represented in the action by attorneys with the Chicago and Miami offices of the firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.