By Minh N. Vu

A recent decision by the federal court in the Northern District of Illinois serves as an important reminder that organizations that do not lease or own physical space where they provide goods, services, or accommodations to the public may still be covered by Title III of the ADA when they hold conferences or events.  In People of the State of Illinois v. Illinois High School Ass’n, the Illinois State Attorney General and a disabled high school student sued the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) for refusing to adopt policies and procedures that would allow athletes with disabilities to compete in IHSA events and competitions.  The IHSA is an organization comprised of 98% of public and private high schools in Illinois.  The high schools rely on IHSA to organize and administer their state championship meets.  The plaintiffs contended, among other things, that the IHSA’s refusal to establish special qualifying standards for athletes with disabilities to compete in these state championship meets – as it had done based on other criteria such as gender, school size, and geography – violated Title III of the ADA.  The U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces Title III of the ADA, filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs’ position.

IHSA moved to dismiss the ADA claim, arguing that it is not a place of public accommodation because it is only an organization that promotes athletic events, and has no physical place where it provides goods and services to the public.  The court denied the motion and allowed the case to move forward.  Specifically, the court held that a “place of public accommodation” is a “facility operated by a private entity whose operations affect commerce” and that falls within certain categories, including a gymnasium, place of exercise or recreation, school, place of education, stadium, or other place of exhibition or entertainment.  The court pointed out that by organizing and holding athletic events in these types of facilities, the IHSA could be considered an “operator” of a public accommodations facility.

Although this case is still pending, private organizations should consult counsel before hosting events in physical spaces to ensure they understand and comply with Title III requirements applicable to operators of public accommodations.  For example, operators of public accommodations facilities are required to ensure effective communication of event materials to attendees who have speech, hearing, and sight disabilities.  Sign language interpreters, assistive listening devices, and written materials may have to be provided, at no charge to the attendee, at events.  The physical set-up of the facilities, including routes to elevated platforms and seating must also be accessible.