The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require a public entity to structurally alter existing bleacher seating at high school football games where the seating was constructed prior to the enactment of the ADA (1992) and there are alternative ADA accessible seating locations. In Daubert v. Lindsay Unified School District, Lindsay High School offered bleacher seating within its football stadium – constructed before 1992 and unaltered since then – without constructing additional wheelchair access. Nonetheless, the Ninth Circuit found the school complied with the ADA by offering handicapped accessible field-level locations where patrons in wheelchairs could have an unobstructed view of the football games. BB&K’s Michael Maurer successfully represented Lindsay Unified School District in this matter.
The ADA requires public agencies to provide handicapped access to all of their services, programs and activities, but it does not require public agencies to retrofit or upgrade existing facilities if there are other suitable means of providing access. This requirement is meant to shield public agencies from the costs of retrofitting, but it is not always clear whether an alternative method will provide a legally sufficient level of access. In particular, many school districts do not have the funding available for the potentially substantial costs necessary to construct additional stadium/bleacher improvements and therefore face uncertainty as to whether they are in violation of the ADA.
As the first published case addressing whether a public agency must retrofit its bleacher seating, Lindsay Unified clarifies school districts’ and other agencies’ obligations under the ADA when hosting community events. Because the court found that Lindsay Unified School District complied with the ADA, other government agencies can use this case as a blueprint for providing access to events that occur within small, local stadiums.
Even though the existing bleacher seating was inaccessible to wheelchair users, Lindsay High School provided field-level seating locations with several key features, including:
- an unobstructed view of the event,
- the opportunity to sit with other friends and family,
- an accessible route allowing for unassisted ingress to and egress from the locations, and
- unassisted access to concessions and other amenities of the event.
By considering these key features, public agencies can develop a plan to provide access to events that is consistent with Lindsay Unified and thus will likely satisfy the requirements of the ADA.
As a final caveat, Lindsay Unified only applies to bleacher and stadium seating that was constructed prior to the enactment of the ADA (i.e., prior to January 26, 1992) and that has since never been altered. Any newly constructed or altered seating arrangement must strictly comply with ADA design standards, regardless of any alternative seating arrangement.
For questions regarding this ruling and how it may impact your agency or organization, please contact the attorney author of this legal alert listed at right in the Public Contracts and Construction practice or your BB&K attorney.
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