[author: Laura S. Flynn]
Tina Baughman v. Walt Disney World Company
United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (July 18, 2012)
Plaintiff Tina Baughman suffers from limb girdle muscular dystrophy, which makes it difficult for her to walk or stand from a seated position. In association with her eighth birthday, she wanted to visit Disneyland. She contacted Disney and requested permission to use a Segway due to her physical limitations. Disney’s policy is to allow wheelchairs and motorized scooters, but not two-wheeled vehicles or devices, like Segways. Disney refused to make an exception for the plaintiff. Plaintiff sued Disney under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), claiming Disney denied her full and equal access to Disneyland.
The Central District Court of the United States District Court held that plaintiff was judicially estopped from claiming she could not use a wheelchair. As a result, there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether it was “necessary” for plaintiff to use a Segway to visit Disneyland. The District Court granted summary judgment for Disney.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit noted that in three prior lawsuits, plaintiff had claimed that she had “a physical impairment which causes her to rely upon a power scooter or wheelchair for her mobility.” In the current lawsuit, plaintiff was claiming she must use a Segway because using a wheelchair was “impractical, painful, and difficult.” The Court referred to the doctrine of judicial estoppel which states that where a party assumes a certain position in a legal proceeding, and succeeds in maintaining that position, she may not thereafter, simply because her interests have changed, assume a contrary position. The purpose of the doctrine is to protect the integrity of the judicial process by prohibiting parties from deliberately changing positions according to the exigencies of the moment. The Ninth Circuit agreed that plaintiff was estopped from claiming she couldn’t use a wheelchair. It then analyzed plaintiff’s ADA claim based on the presumption she could use a wheelchair.
Title II of the ADA defines discrimination as “a failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities. . .” The District Court held that Disney was not required to modify its policy because it permits wheelchairs and the plaintiff was able to access the park by using a wheelchair. Therefore, a Segway wasn’t “necessary” for her to use the park. The Ninth Circuit disagreed and held that the ADA guarantees the disabled more than mere access to public facilities; it guarantees them “full and equal enjoyment.” While facilities are not required to make any and all possible accommodations that would provide full and equal access to disabled patrons; they are required to make accommodations that are reasonable. In deciding what is reasonable, facilities may consider the costs of such accommodations, disruption of their business and safety. They must also take into account evolving technology that might make it cheaper and easier to ameliorate the plight of the disabled. The Court noted that its decision was supported by regulations promulgated by the Department of Justice which is charged with administering the ADA. The applicable regulation concludes “that in the vast majority of circumstances” public accommodations will have to admit Segways.
The Court did not hold that Disney must permit Segways in its theme parks. It stated that Disney might be able to exclude Segways if it could prove that Segways could not be operated safely in it parks. The decision of the district court was reversed and the case remanded.
Pursuant to the Court’s ruling, public accommodations are required to consider how their facilities are used by non-disabled guests and must then take reasonable steps to provide disabled guests with a like experience.
For a copy of the complete decision see: