Seyfarth Synopsis: In amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department agreed with the Fifth Circuit and defendant Coca-Cola that a vending machine is not a place of public accommodation and that public accommodations can comply with the ADA by providing assistance to customers in lieu of having accessible self-service equipment.

The Supreme Court recently asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to weigh in on whether vending machines are places of public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA.  The Court’s request related to a pending a Petition for Certiorari filed by a blind plaintiff who unsuccessfully sued Coca-Cola for allegedly owning and/or operating vending machines that are not independently usable by the blind.  Both the District Court and the Fifth Circuit had concluded that such machines are not public accommodations under the ADA.

The DOJ’s amicus brief unequivocally stated its position that vending machines are not public accommodations.  The DOJ advanced a number of arguments in support of its position that a vending machine does not fall within any of the 12 categories of businesses that are considered public accommodations under the statute.  Among other things, the DOJ stated that a vending machine is not a “sales establishment” covered by the law but rather a piece of equipment typically found within public accommodations facilities.

The most significant commentary from the DOJ’s brief concerns a public accommodation’s obligations with regard to self-service equipment provided for public use.  The DOJ stated:

the operator of a public accommodation in which the vending machines is located is better suited to determine whether such changes [(i.e. making the vending machines independently accessible by blind users)] are the most efficient means of complying with the ADA.  When buying or leasing vending machines, some business owners may insist upon the inclusion of accessible features.  Others, however, might choose instead to install the machines at locations within their establishments where their employees will be available to assist customers with disabilities.  The business owner is better positioned than the seller or lessor of the machines to determine what method of ensuring accessibility will be most effective at a particular location.

In other words, it is the DOJ’s position that providing assistance to customers with disabilities is a lawful way to provide access in lieu of procuring accessible vending machines.  Presumably this position would extend to all self-service equipment provided for customer use — at least when there are no privacy concerns.  (In 2014, the DOJ had filed a Statement of Interest in a different case involving allegedly inaccessible point-of-sale devices where it took the position that a public accommodation must provide individuals with disabilities independent access to point-of-sale devices which require the entry of Personal Identification Numbers (PINs).)

Also significant was DOJ’s view that the Supreme Court should not grant review of the case in order to address the question of whether online-only businesses are covered by Title III of the ADA.  The DOJ noted that while “questions concerning Title III’s application to non-physical establishments – including websites or digital services – may someday warrant” the Supreme Court’s attention, this case was not the time or place to do so since the plaintiff here encountered the machines in person, not via telephone or internet.  The DOJ’s suggestion that the Court should defer on this issue suggests that the Department may be evaluating its prior position that online-only businesses are covered by the ADA.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Schools limits IDEA’s exhaustion requirement to those cases which seek relief for a denial of FAPE allowing for some claims brought under Title II and Section 504 on behalf of IDEA eligible students to proceed directly to court without implementation of IDEA’s administrative processes before litigation is commenced.

On February 22, Justice Kagan delivered the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Schools et al., 580 U.S. ____ (2017), and refined the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) exhaustion requirement by holding that this requirement may – in certain circumstances – not apply to a complaint brought under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The case specifically addressed whether IDEA’s exhaustion requirement barred claims for injunctive and monetary relief under Title II and Section 504 based on allegations that a school district denied a disabled child the right to bring a service dog to school.

Noting that IDEA’s statutory language requires exhaustion when a civil action is brought “seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA],”  the Supreme Court held that to meet the IDEA’s statutory exhaustion standard, “a suit must seek relief for the denial of a [free appropriate public education (FAPE)], because that is the only ‘relief’ the IDEA makes ‘available.’”  The Court found that a court should look to the “gravamen” of the plaintiff’s complaint in making the determination and pointed out that that “exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures is unnecessary” in cases where the broader point of a suit is about “something other than the denial” of that statute’s guarantee of FAPE for students with disabilities.  The Court recognized overlap in the protections afforded by IDEA, which is designed to guarantee students individually tailored special education and related services to provide FAPE, and the protections of Title II and Section 504, which mandate nondiscriminatory access to public instruction.  In doing so, the court provided “clues” to guide the exhaustion determination.  The Court described the first clue as coming from the following “pair of hypothetical questions”:

“First, could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school–say a public theatre or library?  And second, could an adult at the school–say, an employee or visitor–have pressed essentially the same grievance?”

The Court opined that when “the answer to these questions is yes, a complaint that does not expressly allege the denial of a FAPE is also unlikely to be truly about the subject.”  The Court identifies the second clue as:

“emerg[ing] from the history of the proceedings.  In particular, a court may consider that a plaintiff has previously invoked the IDEA’s formal procedures to handle the dispute–thus starting to exhaust the Act’s remedies before switching midstream.”

Recognizing the history of the underlying proceedings might suggest that the “gravamen of [Parents’ federal lawsuit] is the denial of FAPE,” the Court remanded the case with instructions that the court below “decide whether their actions reveal that the gravamen of their complaint is indeed the denial of a FAPE, thus necessitating further exhaustion.”

As a practical matter, this decision highlights the importance of compliance with Title II’s and Section 504’s accessibility mandates.  Failure to adequately monitor and address issues of alleged noncompliance could more readily lead to a lawsuit filed directly in federal court without IDEA’s processes and opportunities to resolve complaints before litigation is commenced. Therefore, this holding suggests that more litigation will be filed directly in federal court under Title II and Section 504 asserting that a public school failed to provide non-discriminatory access to an aid, benefit or service to disabled students otherwise eligible for IDEA’s special education programming.

Edited by Kristina Launey.