ADA Accessibility Denied: Ensuring the “Chipotle Experience” for Everyone

Fourth Quarter 2010Newsletters California Update Employment Law

Maurizio Antoninetti, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair, sued two Chipotle restaurants in the San Diego area for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He claimed that the height of the wall separating the food preparation counter from the customer line prevents customers in wheelchairs from seeing the different foods available, choosing their ingredients and watching their orders being assembled, which is part of the “Chipotle experience” that the restaurant advertises. Chipotle had a written policy that required its employees to accommodate disabled customers, by showing or handing them soufflé cups of food samples, for example. The trial court found that Chipotle’s written policy constituted “equivalent facilitation” under the ADA’s guidelines and denied injunctive relief to lower the wall. Further, the trial court denied injunctive relief based on its determination that the plaintiff’s purported desire to return to either of the Chipotle restaurants was “not sincere” because he had previously filed accessibility lawsuits against more than 20 other businesses to which he had never returned.

The Ninth Circuit, however, overturned the trial court’s decision and held that the separation wall “subjects [wheelchair-bound customers] to a disadvantage that non-disabled customers do not suffer” and prevents them from enjoying the “Chipotle experience.” The Ninth Circuit also cautioned against taking a plaintiff’s litigation history into account when determining his or her credibility. The trial court was ordered to reconsider its award of damages and attorney’s fees, signaling that the plaintiff will likely be awarded significantly more.

This decision highlights the legal requirement that businesses, especially restaurants and retailers, ensure that a disabled customer has the ability to enjoy their goods, services and facilities in the same way as a non-disabled customer. This decision also hurts a business’ ability to argue that a “professional plaintiff,” so common in this area of law, is acting in bad faith.