Judge Advances Men’s ADA Complaint Against Uber

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Thursday kept alive a lawsuit accusing Uber of failing to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles to disabled riders in Jackson, Mississippi.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco granted part of Uber’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, tossing the plaintiffs’ California Disabled Persons Act claim because they live outside the state. But he allowed their federal Americans With Disabilities Act claim to proceed.

“Uber cannot defeat ADA liability on the grounds that it is not a covered entity” under the statute, Seeborg wrote.

Scott Crawford and Jarvis Jernigan Jr., who both have multiple sclerosis and use motorized wheelchairs, sued Uber this past May. They claim the ride-hail discriminates against people with disabilities by not offering cars that fit motorized wheelchairs or drivers trained to assist disabled riders into their vehicles in Jackson.

But Uber does offer services for disabled riders, called UberAccess, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Portland, Oregon. Crawford and Jernigan claim Uber can easily make the service available in Jackson, which has a metro population close to that of Portland and Washington, by putting an UberAccess icon into the company’s app in their city.

They cite other special promotions the company launched in various cities around the United States, putting temporary icons into the app “to connect users to puppies, cake and donuts.”

One promotion Uber ran in Philadelphia, called UberPUPPIES, gave customers the option of tapping a temporary icon to have a driver deliver a live puppy to their office for “15 minutes of puptastic playtime,” according to the plaintiffs. Another promotion in New Orleans allowed users to order free donuts by tapping a temporary donut icon.

“Despite their clear ability to alter the app, defendants have chosen not to provide any wheelchair-accessible services in Jackson, Mississippi,” the plaintiffs state in the complaint.

Seeborg sided with the plaintiffs on their ADA claim Thursday, denying Uber’s motion for a judgment on the pleadings. But he granted the company’s motion on claims under the California Disabled Persons Act and the state’s unfair competition law.

Uber argued it isn’t a covered entity under the ADA because it is primarily a technology company. It also contended that because it doesn’t own its own vehicles or lease them to drivers, it can’t be categorized as a taxi service under the statute.

“Nothing in Section 12184 [Title III of the ADA] requires that an entity own or lease its own vehicles in order to qualify as a private entity providing taxi service within the meaning of the statute,” Seeborg concluded. “Uber could very well be required to provide WAV [wheelchair-accessible vehicle] service through some mechanism in order to comply with the anti-discrimination provisions of” Title III, which requires equal public accommodations for people with disabilities.

Plaintiffs’ attorney William Most with Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group, said Thursday his clients are happy with the decision.

“Uber is not magically exempt from federal anti-discrimination laws,” he said by email.

But Seeborg found the California Disabled Persons Act doesn’t apply to Crawford and Jernigan because their claimed harms happened in Jackson, and not by decisions made at Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco as the men argued.

Seeborg tossed their state unfair competition claim for the same reason.

“The mere existence of a corporate decision in California that ultimately impacts an individual outside of California does not necessarily mean the individual was ‘injured’ in California,” Seeborg wrote.

“Because other states have their own disability rights laws, the basic principles of federalism prevent the extension of the California protections to people who do not live in California and have not suffered harm in the state.”

The plaintiffs seek unspecified damages and a court order requiring Uber to offer services for persons with disabilities.

Anne Marie Estevez with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Miami represents Uber. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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