QCR Spring 2021: Lopez v. Catalina Channel Express, Inc. - US Ninth Circuit Requires Availability of Alternative Methods for Restroom Accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act
On September 9, 2020, The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuits (which includes California, Oregon and Washington) issued its opinion on the Lopez v. Catalina Channel Express, No.19-55136 (9th Cir., 2020). The crux of the issue in this case was that the restroom on the Jet Cat Express, a passenger vessel owned and operated by Catalina, was too narrow for Plaintiff’s wheelchair and he unfortunately soiled himself. Catalina had not altered the restroom since 2001. However, they are argued that widening the restroom was not readily achievable. The Central District Court of California granted Summary Judgment in favour of defendant, Catalina Channel Express, against Plaintiff’s Title III American with Disabilities Act lawsuit and Plaintiff appealed.
The Ninth Circuit agreed that plaintiff failed to meet the burden of proving that widening the restroom doorway was readily achievable. This followed the Second Circuit’s (which includes New York State) burden-shifting framework. However, the Ninth Circuit went on to say that Plaintiff could still prevail on a Title III discrimination claim if he establishes that Catalina “chose not to make the restroom available to him even though it could have through alternative methods without much difficulty or expense.” On that basis, the Ninth Circuit remanded to the District Court to determine whether Catalina made the restroom available through “alternative methods.”
This case illustrates that even if an accommodation under the ADA is not readily achievable for structural or other legitimate reasons, owners and operators, especially on passenger vessels, must make sure that the activity in question can be made available to protected individuals through alternative methods. However, the level of difficulty and the expense of the alternative methods are also taken into consideration when analysing the risks of a potential Title III discrimination claim.
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