By Kristina Launey and Ashley Jenkins

Seyfarth Synopsis: Ninth Circuit paves the way for nationwide class action concerning the accessibility of healthcare check-in kiosks for individuals who are blind.

On February 8, 2024, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit approved a federal trial court’s certification of two classes of plaintiffs to proceed against LabCorp regarding the alleged inaccessibility of self-service check-in kiosks at LabCorp’s facilities. In the lawsuit, filed in the Central District of California in January of 2020, the named plaintiff who is blind claimed that he was denied effective communication and equal access to LabCorp’s services because the kiosks cannot be used without sight. The plaintiff claimed that unlike sighted customers, he had to wait for a staff member to notice him and assist him with check-in, forcing him to wait longer to get into the patient queue, and was not able to access other kiosk features like the ability to privately alter account information.

On the appeal of the class certification grant, LabCorp argued that the named plaintiff and other class members did not have standing to pursue their claims because they were not injured by the kiosks’ inaccessibility.  The Court disagreed, holding that the named plaintiff could not use the inaccessible kiosk and had to wait for an employee to notice him and check him in.  Based on these facts, the Court concluded that the named plaintiff “was denied effective communication and, by extension, the full and equal enjoyment of LabCorp’s services.”  While some plaintiffs will undoubtedly rely on this statement to claim that self-service kiosks must always be accessible, such a position would be contrary to the caselaw and DOJ’s prior guidance that providing prompt employee assistance is a lawful method for ensuring effective communication.  It is also noteworthy that the court made this statement in an unpublished decision while deciding if the plaintiff has standing as opposed to the merits. 

The Court also rejected LabCorp’s argument that the commonality requirement for class certification was not met because the standing of each class member to pursue the Unruh Act damages claim requires an “individualized inquiry” into whether each class member has demonstrated “difficulty, discomfort, or embarrassment.”  The Court disagreed with this argument, finding that this standard only applies to the standing inquiry for construction-related Unruh Act claims, not for effective communication claims.  The Court accordingly found the class commonality requirement satisfied because “all class members maintain that their injury resulted from the inaccessibility of a LabCorp kiosk.”  The Court found the other Unruh Act damages class requirements of predominance, typicality, manageability, and superiority also satisfied.

As for the ADA injunctive relief class, the Court rejected LabCorp’s argument that no single injunction could provide relief to all class members because not all blind people prefer the same accommodations.  The Court found that the class members were injured by the “complete inaccessibility of LabCorp kiosks for blind individuals”, not by LabCorp’s failure to meet their preferences.  The Court adopted the district court’s reasoning that the entire class’s injuries could be addressed by making the kiosks accessible, even if some class members may prefer not to use the kiosks.

The two classes certified are: (1) a California class seeking damages under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, and (2) a nationwide class seeking injunctive relief under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and Affordable Care Act. The case will now proceed back in the district court on the merits of the claims.

Given the recent proliferation of self-service equipment in public accommodations, this case serves as an important reminder that before entering into contracts for such equipment, businesses must consider whether the equipment is accessible to users with disabilities and, if not, whether there will be employees in the area to provide prompt assistance.  And while some courts have held that prompt employee assistance can be provided at inaccessible self-service equipment to comply with the ADA, providing accessible self-service equipment mitigates risk of litigation.

Edited by Minh Vu