If you’ve visited a shopping mall in America, you’ve probably seen the characteristic design of the Hollister Co. clothing stores. About 249 of the stores have a roofed porch-like entrance, with steps leading up onto the porch from the mall area and steps leading down from the elevated porch into the store interior. Flanking the porch on both sides are wheelchair accessible entrances with no steps that lead directly into the store’s interior. Advocacy groups — with the Justice Department’s (DOJ) support as amicus — sued Hollister and parent company Abercrombie & Fitch Co. claiming that the porch structure violates Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The plaintiffs won in district court where they argued that: (1) even though the stores fully comply with the requirements of the 1991 and 2010 Standards for Accessible Design (ADA Standards) for entrances, the existence of an elevated porch violate the “overarching aims” of the Title III of the ADA because people who cannot use the stairs cannot enjoy it; (2) the porch itself is a “space” and all spaces must be accessible; and (3) the accessible entrance must be the one used by the “majority of people.”
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected all of these arguments. The court found that meeting the ADA Standards is sufficient to satisfy Title III of the ADA when the issue is one of design, rather than discriminatory practice. The DOJ had argued — based on the ADA’s broad guarantee of a “full and equal” experience — that the porch has to be accessible because it is part of the “Hollister experience.” The Tenth Circuit disagreed. The court also held that the ADA Standards do not require every space in a facility to be accessible. Further, court ruled that the “majority of people” rule from the 1991 ADA Standards was abandoned in the 2010 ADA Standards so that it no longer applies to the case at hand.
This decision should be welcome news for public accommodations that are building and remodeling their facilities. Although it should be matter of common sense that compliance with the ADA Standards equals compliance with the ADA, this lawsuit called this proposition into question. Plaintiffs and DOJ often rely the “full and equal” language of the ADA to argue in support of additional obligations that are not stated in the regulations or ADA Standards. At least in matters of architectural design, one circuit is saying no to this line of argument.