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9th Circuit Win for Disabled Pier 1 Shopper

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In the latest chapter of an 11-year lawsuit against Pier 1 Imports, the 9th Circuit partly upheld the ruling for a disabled shopper at one of the chain's California stores.

The case Byron Chapman filed against the retailer in 2004, regarding architectural features at a Pier 1 in Vacaville that acted as a barrier to his wheelchair, has already gone before the federal appeals court three times.

In 2011, the en banc court ordered the case dismissed because it found no proof that Chapman personally suffered discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, despite showing that barriers existed at the store.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton declined, however, to dismiss Chapman's suit on remand. Instead the now-retired judge allowed Chapman to amend his complaint.

Chapman presented just two claims in his second amended complaint: that clutter made the store's aisles unlawfully narrow, and that the customer-service window was also cluttered with merchandise.

Both parties, trying to avoid a trial, filed for summary judgment.

Karlton rejected Pier 1's motion in June 2012 but found that Chapman had "established, without dispute, that on numerous occasions, Pier 1's aisles were blocked and that its accessibility counter was cluttered."

Appealing that finding last year, Pier 1 told the 9th Circuit that this ruling improperly excluded a store manager's declaration about the store's policy of ensuring that potential obstacles were only temporary.

The three-judge panel affirmed Thursday that obstructions Chapman "encountered were not permissible 'isolated or temporary interruptions in ... access' under the ADA Accessibility Guidelines because the evidence demonstrated that Pier 1 repeatedly failed to maintain accessible routes in its store."

Chapman encountered aisles obstructed by furniture, merchandise and other items on each of his 11 separate visits to the store, which made the aisles' functional width less than the ADA-required 36 inches, the 19-page opinion states.

Chapman's expert's photos of the aisles confirm his claims and that, despite Pier 1's alleged policies to limit such obstructions, the existence of those policies does not indicate that the obstructions were "temporary," the court found.

"Instead, Chapman's evidence demonstrates that these policies and procedures were either ineffective in preventing frequent blocking of the aisles or honored in the breach," Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the panel.

Finding that the obstacles were "not a single or isolated occurrence," the court said that the store repeatedly failed to remedy the problem promptly.

"We note in this connection that given its frequency, the aisle access problem must be viewed systematically, not as a series of individual barriers to access," Berzon wrote.

Pier 1 also failed to show that customers, rather than employees, created the obstructions. Indeed the large step ladders in the aisles "were almost surely placed there by the store's staff rather than by customers," according to the ruling.

Citing insufficient evidence, the panel did, however, reverse a ruling for Chapman regarding sales counters.

According to the opinion, Chapman encountered clutter on the sales counter on only two or three of his visits to the store, and each time the items were promptly removed by store employees.

The panel found that the sales counter obstructions did not "persist beyond a reasonable period of time" and therefore did not violate ADA regulations.

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