Business Wins Accessibility Case: Fixes Were Not Readily Achievable

Minnesota businesses have been under siege from lawsuits claiming accessibility-related violations under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Here’s how one business stood up, fought back and carried the day.

Stairs Prevent Wheelchair Access

Eric Wong suffers from a genetic condition which requires him to use a wheelchair.  In December 2014, he went to an office building in St. Paul to see a mental health professional who had an office on the first floor.  Upon his arrival, Wong observed one step from the sidewalk to the path to the building’s front-door entrance, as well as four steps from the building path to the entrance.  Wong could not negotiate these architectural barriers to access to the building in his wheelchair.  He therefore sued Defendant Heartwood Offices, LLC, in federal court alleging violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) as well as the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”).

In relevant part, Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation, which includes the “failure to remove architectural barriers . . . where such removal is readily achievable.”  As defined, removal is “readily achievable” if it is “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.”

Lower Court Denies Claims

Heartwood sought summary judgment (early dismissal), arguing that the removal of the architectural barriers could not be readily achieved.  They submitted evidence establishing:

  • Installation of a wheelchair-accessible ramp would cost between $11,987 to $22,621;
  • Construction of a wheelchair-accessible route to the ramp would cost either $35,000 (from the back of the building), or over $100,000 (from the front sidewalk);
  • The building’s current entry space was too small for a wheelchair; and
  • An elevator would have to be installed to access the second-floor restroom

In total, Heartwood demonstrated that it would cost over $300,000 to make the building accessible.  Wong disagreed, stating that the architectural modifications he proposed would only cost $10,000, but provided no evidence to support this claim.  As a result, the district court sided with Heartwood and dismissed the case.

Appeals Court Affirms

Wong appealed to the Federal Eight Circuit Court of Appeals but to no avail.  The appeals court first pointed out that the evidence Heartwood presented to the lower court sufficiently demonstrated that the removal of the barriers could not “be carried out without much difficulty or expense.”

Additionally, they acknowledged that while installing a ramp may be “readily achievable” in some situations, such an analysis is “subject to a case by case inquiry.”  Here, because Wong “completely failed to refute” the evidence that Heartwood presented, removing the barriers could not be considered “readily achievable.”  The lower court’s dismissal of the claim was therefore affirmed.

Bottom Line

This case serves a good reminder to businesses and property owners that Title III of the ADA requires the removal of architectural barriers in places of public accommodation where such removal can be easily accomplished and able to be carried out without much additional expense.

However, it is important to keep in mind that this is a case-by-case, fact-based inquiry – what may be “readily achievable” in a particular situation might not be in others.  It makes sense to thoroughly evaluate the options.