Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, December 8, 2008


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Ninth Circuit Overturns Ruling on Disabled Seating at Movie Theaters




The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday overturned a ruling that would have required a major movie theater chain to retrofit auditoriums at 96 multiplexes containing nearly 2,000 auditoria around the country to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A three-judge panel unanimously agreed that U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper abused her discretion by ordering AMC Entertainment, Inc. to modify multiplexes that were designed or built before the government gave “fair notice” of what it believed was required so that disabled patrons could watch films in facilities with stadium-style seating.

The panel also held, although it split 2-1 on the issue, that Cooper should not have given the injunction nationwide scope because at least one federal appellate court has imposed a less stringent standard.

Stadium-Style Seating

Stadium-style seating was introduced by AMC in Dallas in 1995 and has since been copied by all of its major competitors and has spread throughout the country. AMC has multiplexes in about 22 states, with the largest numbers in California, Florida, and Texas.

The earliest stadium-style theaters had all of their wheelchair spaces close to the screen, in an area with traditional sloped seating rather than the stepped-up stadium seating. Access to the stadium-style seating, which took up all but the first few rows, was only available to those who could climb steps, leading to complaints from disabled patrons.

Later designs have placed auditorium entrances farther from the screen and improved sightlines for wheelchair users.

In suing AMC, the Department of Justice alleged that the older configurations violate the ADA.  AMC argued that it complied with the law as it was understood at the time.

‘Equal Enjoyment’

The ADA was enacted in 1990. Title III of the act guarantees disabled persons the “full and equal enjoyment” of public accommodations, and leaves it up to the Department of Justice, with the assistance of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Board—commonly referred to as the Access Board—to develop standards to be applied to all new places of public accommodation built for first occupancy more than 30 months after the enactment of the statute.

The Access Board is made up of 25 members, 12 of whom represent federal agencies and 13 of whom are public members appointed by the president. A majority of the public members must be disabled persons.

DOJ’s Standard 4.33.3, adopted in 1991, provides that, with respect to arenas, theaters, and the like, “[w]heelchair areas...shall be provided so as to provide people with physical disabilities...lines of sight comparable to those for members of the general public.”

The standard also provides, among other things, that when seating capacity exceeds 300, wheelchair spaces shall be provided in more than one place.

Different Conclusions

Appellate courts have reached different conclusions as to whether a theater operator complies with the ADA simply by offering obstruction-free seating in theaters with stadium-style auditorium configurations, or whether it must enable wheelchair users to sit in the elevated portions of the auditoriums so that their sightlines are equivalent to those of non-disabled patrons.

Judge Kim Wardlaw, writing yesterday for the Ninth Circuit, explained that the DOJ has taken the latter position, which it first enunciated in an amicus brief filed in a suit brought by a private party in the Western District of Texas. That case ultimately resulted in a Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling rejecting the DOJ position.

The Ninth Circuit, on the other hand, adopted the DOJ position in 2003. The First and Sixth circuits later followed suit.

Given the split in the circuits, and the fact that the DOJ did not specifically endorse the stricter view until seven years after it adopted the standard, “we decline to hold that a person of ordinary intelligence should have known, when initiating a construction project years prior to any public announcement from the relevant agency, that § 4.33.3 was susceptible only to the interpretation the government now champions,” Wardlaw wrote.

“Retroactive application of the viewing angle interpretation is appropriate only as of the date on which AMC received constructive notice that the government viewed § 4.33.3 as incorporating a comparable viewing angles requirement and intended to enforce that requirement,” the judge added. This date, which cannot be any earlier than the date of the DOJ’s brief in the Texas case, must be determined by the district judge on remand, Wardlaw explained.

Judges Carlos Bea and N. Randy Smith joined Wardlaw’s opinion on the issue, while Smith, joined by Bea, wrote for the court on the issue of the nationwide injunction.

Smith said that Cooper should have shown comity to the Fifth Circuit and exempted theaters within that court’s territory—the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi—from the injunction. A nationwide injunction “would cause substantial interference” with the sovereignty of the Fifth Circuit, Smith said.

Wardlaw, dissenting on that point, argued that a nationwide injunction is within the district court’s discretion because it would not “require [AMC] to act in conflict with any law, obligation, or requirement in the Fifth Circuit or Texas.”

The case is United States v. AMC Entertainment, Inc., 06-55390.


Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company