Thursday, August 14, 2003
Ninth Circuit Rules:
Movie Theaters May Not Relegate Wheelchair Patrons to Front
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
Stadium-style movie theaters cannot allocate only the space in front of the first row of seats to wheelchair patrons, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Senior Judge Betty B. Fletcher, joined by Judge M. Margaret McKeown, said a Justice Department regulation adopted under the Americans with Disabilities Act requires theater owners to seat disabled patrons in areas that provide viewing angles similar to those available from other seats—taking into account the fact that “wheelchair-bound patrons cannot slump in their seats and recline their bodies in order to adjust for the unfavorable viewing angle, as can able-bodied patrons sitting in the same part of the theater.”
Placing customers in wheelchairs in front of everyone else where the “vertical viewing angle was significantly sharper than in the rest of the theater” did not do that, Fletcher wrote.
Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld authored a strongly worded dissent in which he warned that as a result of the ruling “thousands of movie theaters will discover that they are out of compliance with the law, and must destroy facilities built in compliance with the law according to the best knowledge of design professionals at the time.”
Fletcher noted that the Justice Department’s Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines require that wheelchair areas must “be an integral part of any fixed seating plan and shall be provided so as to provide people with physical disabilities a choice of admission prices and lines of sight comparable to those for members of the general public.”
She said U.S. District Judge Garr M. King of the District of Oregon erred in failing to accord deference to Department of Justice interpretation of its regulations. The department has said they require that in stadium-style theaters, “wheelchair locations must be provided lines of sight in the stadium seating seats within the range of viewing angles as those offered to most of the general public in the stadium style seats, adjusted for seat tilt.”
Fifth Circuit Ruling
Instead, King followed the ruling of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Lara v. Cinemark USA, Inc., 207 F.3d 783. In that case, decided in 2000, the appellate court noted the regulations were adopted in 1991—four years before stadium-seating movie theater construction became widespread—and held the requirement that lines of sight be “comparable” meant only that they should be unobstructed.
Fletcher pointed out that the trial judge had conceded the Lara ruling appeared to contradict the “plain meaning” of the regulation.
“The question here...is whether it is unreasonable for DOJ to interpret ‘comparable line of sight’ to encompass factors in addition to physical obstructions, such as viewing angle,” the appellate judge declared. “The answer, in light of the plain meaning of the regulation both in general and as understood in the movie theater industry, is ‘no.’”
“In the theaters at issue in this case, wheelchair-bound movie theater patrons must sit in seats that are objectively uncomfortable, requiring them to crane their necks and twist their bodies in order to see the screen, while non-disabled patrons have a wide range of comfortable viewing locations from which to choose. We find it simply inconceivable that this arrangement could constitute ‘full and equal enjoyment’ of movie theater services by disabled patrons. Yet, in rejecting DOJ’s interpretation, this is precisely what the district court in this case held: No matter where in the theater the seats are, and no matter how sharp the viewing angle, so long as there is no physical object standing between the disabled patron and the screen, DOJ is not free to interpret its own regulation as requiring anything more.”
Kleinfeld said the ruling, in addition to creating a conflict between circuits and adopting an “unreasonable construction of the applicable regulation,” also “puts theater owners in a position of impossible uncertainty as to what they must do to comply with the law.”
The dissenting judge said the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, also known as the “Access Board,” is considering regulations which would address the issue of stadium seating.
The design inference to be drawn from the majority’s ruling, Kleinfeld argued, are “obscure and debatable.”
“Though I could come up with a scheme that I think could satisfy the implications of the majority opinion, I am not sure that it would satisfy the majority, and I am entirely unable to say what is the least expensive design that would satisfy the majority. If a judge on the panel cannot say just what is required, how can a movie theater owner? It is irresponsible to impose on the country a decision that will require of an industry so much reconstruction, without clear guidance on what must be done. Regulating movie theater architecture retroactively by vague judicial fiat is unjust.”
Seating and viewing angles are “highly subjective,” Kleinfeld observed, adding:
“A purportedly uniform federal regulation now means something different in the Ninth Circuit from what it means in the Fifth.”
“We know perfectly well that the Access Board is addressing wheelchair spaces and stadium seating, and there is no justification for jumping in front of them.”
Attorneys involved in the case agreed with Kleinfeld that major changes in existing movie theaters would be required in the wake of the court’s ruling.
Kathleen L. Wilde of the Oregon Advocacy Center in Portland, who represented the plaintiffs, said the decision “means retrofit.”
Wilde said the type of design involved in the litigation was used in the “first round” of stadium-style movie theaters. “After the lawsuits started they started changing their design,” she said.
Wilde said stadium theaters became popular beginning in about 1995, with litigation over them starting in 1998.
She said some newer theaters have done the “logical thing” by incorporating entrances onto an aisle in the middle of stadium seats where wheelchairs can be accommodated with other patrons both in front of them and behind them.
Lawyer Greg Hurley of Kutak Rock in Irvine, who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the National Association of Theater Owners of California/Nevada, told the METNEWS the ruling will have implications beyond the film exhibition industry. “This applies to all auditoriums,” Hurley said, noting that many public facilities may find they must consider modifications to meet the Ninth Circuit’s mandate if it stands.
Hurley speculated that there is a “good chance” the case will wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court in view of the conflict between the circuits.
The attorney said theater owners “have always been willing” to provide whatever type of accommodation is required under the law, but have received conflicting guidance from the Justice Department.
“At every step the owners have done the best they can,” Hurley said.
The case is Oregon Paralyzed Veterans of America v. Regal Cinemas, Inc., 01-35554.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company