Seyfarth Synopsis: Pennsylvania court rules that a museum violated the ADA when it refused to waive the entry fee for a guest’s personal care assistant.

A federal district court judge in Pennsylvania court recently held that Title III of the ADA required the Franklin Institute (“FI”) to waive the admission fee for the personal care assistant (“PCA”) of a person with a disability to attend a movie screening at the museum. Title III of the ADA requires public accommodations to make reasonable modifications to their normal policies practices and procedures where necessary to ensure access for individuals with disabilities, unless doing so imposes an undue burden or fundamentally alters the nature of the goods and services being offered. The court found that waiving the fee would not pose an undue burden or result in a fundamental alteration in this case.

FI argued that free entry would result in dramatic economic consequences to the museum, including deficits, ineligibility for grants, elimination of services, budget cuts and ultimately layoffs.

The judge disagreed with colorful prose, finding no loss of revenue and nothing more than a de minimus added cost to FI; calling FI’s arguments “worthy of the antagonist in a Dickens novel.” The judge noted that the museum’s existing practice of providing folding chairs for PCAs to sit next to wheelchair users would not cost the museum any money because the folding chairs were not normally sold to patrons. The court also noted that FI spends substantial sums on charitable efforts and gives reduced price tickets to people who cannot afford to pay. The court criticized FI’s argument that parents or babysitters of children must pay for entry, noting that individuals with disabilities are not the same as children.

While a well-heeded cautionary tale, this case is not of universal applicability. It does not mean museums and other institutions must always let companions in for free. Rather, places of public accommodation must take their obligation to make reasonable modifications to policies, procedures, and practices seriously, and conduct a meaningful analysis of whether making the modification would really impose an undue burden or result in a fundamental alteration. The decision also serves as a reminder that disability access defenses are highly fact intensive and cannot be decided early in a case. The practical approach in some cases may be to make the modification rather than watch fees increase in the process of litigating a case.