Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ninth Circuit: Chipotle Violated the ADA

The Ninth Circuit ruled Monday that two Chipotle restaurants in California violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  As the San Francisco Chronicle noted in reporting on the case, Monday was also the twentieth anniversary of the ADA.  The panel was unanimous and interestingly, Judge Daniel Friedman of the Federal Circuit, sitting by designation, wrote the opinion.

According to its website, Chipotle has roughly 1,000 restaurants.  The Ninth Circuit describes the configuration of the two locations at issue, as follows: "Customers walk along a line that is next to a long counter containing the different foods that are available . . . . [That] line is separated from [the] 'food preparation counter' by a separator wall."  That separator wall is too high for a customer in a wheelchair to see the foods being prepared or request specifications, as other customers can.  Chipotle advertises this customization as being part of the "Chipotle experience."

A customer who uses a wheelchair sued Chipotle under the ADA, requesting an injunction to require the company to lower the walls, which the district court denied.  Conversely, the Ninth Circuit found the injunction appropriate, but remanded to the district court for the exact "contours."  The appellate panel rejected Chipotle's attempts at accommodation by, e.g., offering to show food samples in a cup or prepare food at a table.  In addition, the panel remanded for recalculation of attorney's fees, making clear that an increase is appropriate, and damages under a state disability law (both of which the lower court originally awarded).

Following the decision, Chipotle noted that its counter design has been modified in California and already meets the Ninth Circuit's standard.  Also, the company "is using the same design for new and renovated restaurants in other states."