When you think of Uber (or similar companies like Lyft and Sidecar) you probably think of a transportation company. You request a ride on the company’s app and a driver (in his own vehicle) picks you up. The nature of the company’s business is, however, the very thing at issue in a series of lawsuits brought against Uber under the ADA. In lawsuits filed in Arizona, California, and Texas, individuals and disability rights organizations have accused Uber of failing to comply with ADA requirements of offering accommodations for the disabled (including individuals who are visually and mobility impaired) in providing transportation services. The accommodations at issue include wheel-chair accessible vehicles, and other features that are required for most taxi companies under various federal, state, and local laws.

What exactly does Uber do?

Uber’s position is that it is a software and technology company, not a “transportation company.” Uber does not own any vehicles, or employ any drivers. Most people know that the “Uber driver” who picks you up is using her personal vehicle. That person is also an “independent contractor” and not an employee of Uber. This goes to the heart of the company’s business model and it is one of the ways it is able to offer services that are, in many cases, more competitive than traditional transportation and ride sharing companies. Although Uber has a code of conduct that prohibits disability discrimination and offers voluntary driver training, it states that the company does not have any legal liability related to the non-compliance of its drivers/independent contractors.

The plaintiffs in these cases disagree and believe that Uber is exploiting a gray area in the law and the company should have responsibility for the conduct of its drivers the same way as, say, a taxi company. The U.S. Department of Justice also sided with the plaintiffs in one case and opposed a motion to dismiss filed by Uber. Disability rights organizations are also pushing legislation in various states and localities to achieve their goals.

New technology and old problems

Uber’s business model unquestionably puts the company in a difficult position with respect to responding to these legal challenges. A looser set of guidelines for drivers concerning ADA compliance opens the company up for lawsuits, while a strict set of rules and mandatory training requirements would likely place driver independent contractor status in jeopardy (FYI: the employment status of drivers for Uber and similar companies is already subject to legal challenge).

Uber is also experiencing less direct ADA cost, including the rise of social media and online shaming strategies. For companies trying to capture attention and trends, the lack of control over people who interface with their customers can be costly and quickly go viral.

Although the cases involving Uber may ultimately turn on whether the company’s business is software or transportation, they will likely also have important implications for the scope of the ADA in addressing new business models and ways of offering services. In Uber’s case, does providing a service where the public can locate and contract with drivers mean that the company also “owns” issues of ADA compliance and liability? As we have addressed in prior articles, the ADA (enacted in 1990) presents many challenges as to how the law applies to services offered to the public in an increasingly virtual world that does not depend on brick and mortar stores. This includes any company that uses technology to allow the public to link up with or find goods and services.

It should be an interesting ride….