It is hard to write on anything that doesn’t have something to do with Covid-19. However, ADA jurisprudence continues and a lot of it happens outside of Covid-19. That said, expect a tremendous amount of issues stemming from Covid-19. We will certainly be following those issues closely. Today, we will be talking about a case, Dominguez v. Banana Republic, LLC, out of the Southern District of New York where Judge Woods dismisses plaintiff’s claims that not offering braille gift cards violates title III of the ADA. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; court’s reasoning general/standing; court’s reasoning gift cards are not places of public accommodation; court’s reasoning no claim exists for Banana Republic failing to provide auxiliary aids and services; and thoughts/takeaways. As usual, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.
In Dominguez v. Banana Republic, found here, Dominguez called Banana Republic’s customer service office to ask whether the store sold braille gift cards. An employee told him that the store did not. During the call, the employee did not offer plaintiff any alternative auxiliary aids or services. Later, plaintiff unsuccessfully attempted to locate accessible braille gift card for Banana Republic on his own. Plaintiff then sued Banana Republic under the ADA and the New York State Human Rights law. Plaintiff’s firm and another firm have brought several identical lawsuits like this, which the court was none too happy about.
Court’s Reasoning General/Standing
- Proving up a claim of a violation of title III of the ADA means establishing that: 1) plaintiff is a person with a disability as defined by the ADA; 2) defendants own, lease, or operate a place of public accommodation; and 3) the defendant discriminated against the plaintiff within the meaning of the ADA.
- Showing standing under title III of the ADA involves showing: 1) a past injury; 2) it is reasonable to infer that discriminatory treatment would continue; and 3) it is reasonable to infer, based upon the past frequency of plaintiff’s business and the proximity of defendant services to plaintiff’s home, that plaintiff intended to return to the subject location.
- Plaintiff has alleged both a past injury and that discriminatory treatment was likely to continue because he was told that not only Banana Republic’s does not have any braille gift cards, but they had no plans to offer them in the future.
- Plaintiff did not allege enough facts to plausibly plead that he intended to return to the place where he encountered the alleged discrimination for several reasons: 1) he did not profess any interest in procuring contemporary, affordable workwear; 2) he didn’t assert that he owned Banana Republic pieces already and wished to continue compiling a collection with the help of Banana Republic gift card; and 3) generic conclusory statements are not sufficient.
- Cut and paste pleadings have their advantages in terms of the ability to turn them out quickly and often. However, their disadvantage is that they are too conclusory and fail to allege sufficient specific facts to show a real or immediate threat of injury in a specific situation.
Court’s Reasoning Gift Cards Are Not Places of Public Accommodations
- Title III of the ADA regulates access to places of public accommodation and not to the type of merchandise a place of public accommodation sells.
- Title III does not require provision of different goods or services. Rather, it just requires nondiscriminatory enjoyment of those that are provided. For example, a bookstore cannot prohibit a visually impaired person from entering the store, but the books themselves do not have to be available in both braille and in standard print.
- Gift cards are a good under the dictionary term of the meaning and therefore, do not need to be made accessible under title III.
- A retailer sells gift card to consumers in the same way as they sell any other product in its stores.
- DOJ implementing regulations, 28 C.F.R. §36.307(a), says a title III entity does not have to alter its inventory to include accessible or special goods designed for person with disabilities.
- The purpose of the ADA’s title III requirements to ensure accessibility to the goods offered by a public accommodation and not to change the nature or mix of goods that the public accommodation typically provides.
- Gift cards are neither places nor public accommodations.
- Gift cards are not public accommodation because gift cards fit into none of the categories of 42 U.S.C. §12181(7).
- Gift cards are not places either. That is, Congress likely used the words place of public accommodation because it could find no other less cumbersome way to describe businesses offering particular goods or services covered in 42 U.S.C. §12181. While it is true that the Second Circuit allows for places of public accommodation to extend beyond physical spaces, it simply is impossible to come up with the conclusion that gift cards are a place. After all, gift cards do not sell or rent goods. Put differently, you can make a purchase with a gift card, but not on or in a gift card.
- Courts have the responsibility of interpreting the actual text of laws that Congress enacts, and not with rewriting or expanding the scope of laws in the absence of the statutory text no matter how much one thinks it may advance remedial goals or represent congressional intent.
Court’s Reasoning: No Claim Exists for Banana Republic Failing to Provide Auxiliary Aids and Services
- 42 U.S.C. §12182(b)(2)(A)(iii) requires the providing of auxiliary aids and services by a title III covered entity unless doing so would result in the fundamental alteration of the goods, services, facility, privileges, advantages, or accommodations being offered or would result in an undue burden.
- Auxiliary aids and services include, per 42 U.S.C. §12103(1)(B)-(D), qualified readers, tape text, modification of equipment or devices, or other effective methods of making visually delivered materials available to individuals with visual impairments.
- With respect to title III, DOJ final implementing regulations, 28 C.F.R. §36.303(c)(1)(ii) make clear that it is the title III entity that gets to decide what auxiliary aid to offer. For example, a restaurant would not be required to provide menus in braille for patrons who are blind if the waiters in the restaurant are made available to read the menu. Similarly, a clothing boutique would not be required to have braille price tag if sales personnel provide price information orally upon request, and a bookstore would not be required to make available a sign language interpreter because effective communication can be conducted by notepad.
- Plaintiff was not denied access to an auxiliary aid or service, much less one that effectively communicated information about Banana Republic’s gift cards.
- In a footnote, the court notes that it is absurd to read the ADA as requiring a place of public accommodation to offer every single customer the help of all available auxiliary aids and services before the customer even after one.
- Braille gift cards may or may not even be technologically possible because a braille gift card can only fit 55 to 70 braille characters. Braille is very big.
- ADA and constitutional law integration arguments don’t work because gift cards are not cash and gift cards do not facially maximize a person’s employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence, or inclusion and integration into society.
- The decision seems well reasoned, to me anyway.
- Be careful about taking the example of using communication by notes with people who are Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing. Especially with the Deaf (culturally deaf individuals), communication by notes back and forth especially where complex information is involved, is not likely to be effective as we saw in the case we discussed here. Also, depending upon context, it isn’t even something you would want to try.
- Do we have a different case if instead of just asking for braille gift cards, the blind individual asked for some way to use gift cards in a way a person who is not blind could use them? For example, would there be some way for the blind individual to know that the gift card is from Banana Republic? Would there be some way for the blind individual to know how much is on their gift card? I suppose all of that is possible litigation down the road.
- If a blind individual does call saying I would like a braille gift card. A better response might be we don’t offer that, but how can I be of help so that you can participate in that activity? Most people with disabilities are not looking to foment litigation. Respecting the individual with the disability goes a long way.
- When it comes to the ADA, if on the plaintiff side, stay away from notice pleadings. Instead, be sure to allege enough facts to put the defendant on notice as to the specifics of the claim. Think of it as a hybrid of staying somewhere in the middle between notice pleading and fact-based pleadings.
- While magic words aren’t required to request an accommodation, some kind of request for accommodation does have to be made.