As I sit in a Starbucks watching baristas serve up morning coffee drinks from behind wood-paneled counters, I think about how easy it would be for Maurizio Antoninetti to sue them. Antoninetti, of San Diego, successfully brought a lawsuit against Chipotle Mexican Grill and yesterday the Supreme Court denied Chipotle’s appeal. The four-foot-high counter at Chipotle, the suit claims, prohibits people in wheelchairs from seeing and selecting their food first-hand, which is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Antoninetti says he is being prevented from “participating in the restaurant experience.”
This is a situation people with disabilities know too well, including me. (I’m deaf.) Minutes ago, when the barista at Starbucks asked for my name so she could write it on my cup, I knew I’d never hear my name being called out amid the loud coffee grinders and jazz music. So I did what I always do: Stand at deep watch, Mermaid-themed coffee jacket in hand, psycho-stalking the barista with my eyes so I can lip-read when she calls “Sue.” It’s what I do.
Deep-pocketed restaurants like Starbucks and Chipotle are an easy target for disability lawsuits. Since the ADA passed in 1990, plaintiffs with disabilities nationwide have filed thousands of lawsuits related to architecture and other excluding barriers. The outcomes of ADA access lawsuits are generally favorable to plaintiffs and can result in accessibility improvements for people with disabilities. But increasingly, these cases are frivolent, bombastic, lack common sense and hurt businesses.
This is especially true for small businesses. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in December that disability lawsuits are killing small businesses in the city. An independent bookstore closed up shop after Craig Thomas Yates, who uses a wheelchair, sued the bookstore, two other merchants and the landlord of a nearby building, demanding alterations and monetary damages. The bookstore owner couldn’t afford the accommodations Yates says were necessary under the ADA, including expanding the small shop to make more room for his wheelchair.
An alternative to this unfortunate scenario? Yates might have asked the shop owner to bring books to him. He might have gone to another bookstore, taking his money with him. He might have told his friends not to patronize the location and made public comments on websites like Yelp and JJ’s List, a place for people with disabilities to rate businesses and services.
Like Yates, Antoninetti is also a serial litigant who has sued other businesses in California but dropped the lawsuits upon receiving cash settlements, according to Huffington Post.
Like Yates, Antoninetti also had alternatives: Chipotle’s staff offered to bring spoonfuls of the servings to Antoninetti so he could see the food before purchasing. He could have ordered online or using an iPhone app, skipping the counter process. He could have taken his appetite, and his wallet, elsewhere.
Chipotle founder Steve Ells, who is now a judge on NBC’s America’s Next Great Restaurant, constantly talks up the importance of the restaurant experience. He’s also a master of efficiency — hence, a successful chain of line-based, fast-food burrito joints. I bet he’d say that showing plastic “spoonfuls” of black beans to people in wheelchairs is not part of the Chipotle experience. I bet he’s wishing he could eat those words.
People with disabilities should have equal access to all goods and services like everyone else. Establishments should have curb cuts, ramps and room for wheelchairs to maneuver, when feasible. Restaurants should offer menus in alternative formats like large print and Braille (or servers should offer to read the menu aloud.) This is good business, and helps our society. Don’t believe me? Wait until your mom turns 70, uses a walker, and has two cataracts.
But these serial litigants are not suing to advance a common accessibility goal. They, like the lawyers that represent them, are often money-hungry and, as the San Francisco bookshop owner says, “picking off [businesses] like grapes on a vine.” Deliberately ignoring common sense, these litigants turn a blind eye to their physical limitations in order to flout the law.
There is both a silver lining and a black eye to the Chipotle lawsuit. On the positive side, the restaurant will be required to build a lower countertops, which will improve access for people using wheelchairs. But with the continuation of frivolous lawsuits, the ADA will continue to be a stigma on the backs of businesses and entrepreneurs who will be afraid to innovate, accommodate and otherwise engage consumers with disabilities. I, for one, don’t want to see that happen.
– Suzanne Robitaille