Judge: Lawsuit vs Uber over wheelchair access can continue; Uber 'public accommodation' under ADA

By Jonathan Bilyk | Dec 18, 2018

Saying he believed Uber should be considered a “public accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a Chicago federal judge has allowed a lawsuit to continue against Uber over its lack of vehicles able to accommodate users with motorized wheelchairs.

On Dec. 17, U.S. District Judge Manish Shah delivered a win to those suing the popular ride-hailing service, siding with them on several key points in their effort to force Uber to improve access for those with disabilities to the network of private vehicles millions access daily throughout the U.S. using Uber’s smartphone app.

“At this stage, plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that Uber is a transportation provider, and it is equal access to that service (not a particular type of transportation) that Uber has blocked,” Judge Shah wrote. “If plaintiffs establish liability, it will still remain to be seen whether the requested remedy - that Uber provide service to those who require wheelchair-accessible vehicles - is appropriate under the statute.”

The issue has been litigated before Shah in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois since 2016, when the lawsuit was first filed by advocacy group, Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, and three individuals who either work or volunteer for Access Living.

Steven P. Blonder   Much Shelist

All three individuals rely on motorized wheelchairs for mobility, and all three asserted they have been either prevented from using Uber’s service because Uber has no vehicles available near them able to also transport their motorized wheelchairs.

The individual plaintiffs “want to use Uber … and they have the smartphones and credit cards they need to do it. But none of them have downloaded the Uber app, because they believe that Uber does not provide equivalent services to people who use motorized wheelchairs,” Judge Shah wrote in his decision.

 In the lawsuit, Access Living and the individual plaintiffs asked the court to declare Uber a public accommodation under the ADA law, and to order the company to ensure those with disabilities who rely on motorized wheelchairs always have access to an Uber driver with a vehicle capable of accommodating their needs, with he same response times, service areas, reservation capability and pricing as is available to those without such disabilities.

In the lawsuit, Access Living said the city of Chicago has, to date, chosen not to include such accessibility requirements in city rules governing ride-hailing or “ridesharing” services, like Uber and Lyft.

Access Living said Uber also has refused its requests to provide such services voluntarily.

Under its business model, Uber does not own the vehicles its drivers use nor does it mandate when drivers must work. However, the company does set requirements for vehicles used by its drivers, including certain size and capacity requirements for certain levels of service, and requirements that the vehicles pass certain inspections.

Uber also sets “minimum requirements for its drivers age, experience, licensing and driving records,” the lawsuit said.

Uber has asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, asserting the plaintiffs don’t have standing to bring the action, and, because it doesn’t own the vehicles its drivers use, it can’t be considered a place of public accommodation. Rather, Uber said its smartphone-based ride-hailing service is more akin to online services like Expedia, which help people book hotel stays and airline tickets, but do not themselves own or operate the public accommodations.

Further, Uber said the ADA does not require it to provide identical service to those with motorized wheelchairs, but only requires it to provide “access” to its “goods or services to people with disabilities.”

Judge Shah agreed that Access Living cannot advance allegations of “second-hand discrimination” under the ADA, as Uber did not do anything to discriminate against the organization itself.

And the judge dismissed one of the individual plaintiffs, who said she only heard of Uber’s lack of accessible vehicles from her husband.

Both of those dismissals were without prejudice, meaning they are free to refile their complaints to attempt to remedy the shortcomings in their original complaints.

Judge Shah, however, disagreed with much of the rest of Uber’s arguments.

The judge pointed to Uber’s rules for drivers, saying the company exerts enough control over its drivers to “suggest that Uber drivers are not independent of Uber.”

“… Even if Uber drivers’ own choices of vehicle are what cause plaintiffs’ injuries, the cause can be attributed to Uber if its policies or actions have a determinative or coercive effect on the drivers’ choices,” Judge Shah wrote. “… And if Uber caused plaintiffs’ injuries, then an injunction against Uber - one that directs Uber to use its alleged control over drivers to cure the inadequate supply of wheelchair-accessible rides - is plausibly likely to redress the injuries.”

The judge also particularly rejected Uber’s arguments against treating it as a public accommodation under the ADA, saying he did not believe the definition of “public accommodation” must be attached to a “physical site.” While conceding a number of federal appeals courts disagree with his position, Shah pointed to the position taken by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, in its 2001 decision in Morgan v. Joint Administration Board, which found: “What matters is that the good or service be offered to the public.”

That finding, Shah said, “was not a passing thought, but rather an explicit rejection of Uber’s argument that a ‘public accommodation’ must be a physical site.”

Shah further rejected Uber’s contention the ADA does not regulate the “content” of its services, meaning it cannot be expected to provide the same service to those with motorized wheelchairs as it does to other users.

“The complaint does not allege that Uber refuses to sell its services to plaintiffs,” Judge Shah wrote. “Plaintiffs could be saying that Uber’s services are not as useful for them as they are for others due to a lack of available accessible vehicles - a challenge to the content of Uber’s service.

“But the complaint could also be read to allege that Uber has denied plaintiffs meaningful access to Uber’s transportation services by providing so few accessible vehicles. Without accessible vehicles that can actually transport them, plaintiffs are shut out of the service, effectively turned away due to their disabilities.”

Judge Shah said two of the individual plaintiffs can continue with their request for injunctions requiring Uber to provide the accessible service they want.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Steven P. Blonder, Daniel A. Hantman and Jonathan L. Loew, of the firm of Much Shelist P.C., of Chicago.

Uber is represented by attorneys Stephanie Schuster, Kristal D. Petrovich, Patrick A. Harvey and Anne Marie Estevez, of the firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius Llp, with offices in Chicago, Miami and Washington, D.C.


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Organizations in this Story

Access Living Morgan, Lewis & Bockius MUCH SHELIST, P.C. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Uber Technologies Inc

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