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Justice Department sues Uber over ‘wait time’ fees for disabled riders

Uber says it has a policy of refunding disabled riders for wait time fees, but the DOJ cited at least two cases where the company refused to refund passengers.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — The U.S. Department of Justice slapped Uber with a federal lawsuit Wednesday, claiming the ride-hail giant violates anti-discrimination laws by imposing “wait time” fees on disabled riders who need more time to board vehicles.

“Passengers with disabilities who need additional boarding time are entitled to access ridesharing services without discrimination,” said Stephanie Hinds, acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, in a statement Wednesday. “This lawsuit seeks to assist people with disabilities to live their lives with independence and dignity, as the ADA guarantees.” 

The 11-page complaint accuses Uber of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to give disabled passengers adequate time to board cars, offer them equitable fares or make reasonable modifications to its wait time fee policies and practices.

Under a policy first launched in limited locations in April 2016 and later expanded to all U.S. cities, Uber charges riders fees starting two minutes after an Uber vehicles arrives at its pickup location. Uber drivers have no discretion to waive those fees. The fee amount depends on the city and type of vehicle or service each passenger orders through the app, according to the company.

In a statement released Wednesday, Uber said it was taken aback by the government’s lawsuit because it has been in active talks with the DOJ and is working to address its concerns.

“Wait time fees are charged to all riders to compensate drivers after two minutes of waiting, but were never intended for riders who are ready at their designated pickup location but need more time to get into the car,” Uber said in its statement. “We recognize that many riders with disabilities depend on Uber for their transportation needs, which is why we had been in active discussions with the DOJ about how to address any concerns or confusion before this surprising and disappointing lawsuit.”

Uber said its policy entitles disabled riders to wait-time fee refunds and that it has returned the money to affected passengers whenever they complain.

But the Justice Department states in its lawsuit that Uber “has also denied wait time fee refunds to some passengers with disabilities even after being informed that the fees were charged because of their disabilities.”

Under a new policy launched last week, Uber says wait time fees will be automatically waived for riders who certify they are disabled.

“We fundamentally disagree that our policies violate the ADA and will keep improving our products to support everyone’s ability to easily move around their communities,” the company said.

In its lawsuit, the DOJ cited the case of a 52-year-old woman who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2012 and became quadriplegic. After moving from Miami to Louisville in May 2020, the woman — whose name was withheld from the complaint — relied on Uber to get to and from her rehabilitation appointments three times per week.

According to the complaint, it takes about five minutes on average for the woman’s nursing assistant to help her move from a wheelchair to the car seat using a sliding board, to move her legs inside the vehicle, buckle her safety belt, collapse the wheelchair and then store it in the trunk.

In August last year, the woman realized that Uber had charged her wait-time fees for every ride she took since moving to Louisville. She tried to request a refund but could not find a phone number to directly contact Uber. She posted a message on Uber’s Twitter account and sent emails to its customer service account.

When she finally got a response, an Uber employee told her the wait time fees are automatic and that the employee could not prevent her from being charged in the future. She has yet to receive a refund for any wait time fees, according to the complaint.

“Passenger A felt angry and upset that Uber has charged her wait time fees for her daily rides to her rehabilitation appointments,” the complaint states. “Uber’s refusal to refund her money or to change its wait time fee policy makes Passenger A feel like a second-class citizen.”

A 34-year-old man with cerebral palsy who can only walk short distances and relies on a wheelchair for mobility also discovered Uber had been charging him wait time fees for nearly every ride he took since September 2018. After contacting customer service, Uber initially refunded him but later told him he'd reached the maximum amount of refunds and could no longer be compensated, according to the suit.

“Passenger B felt angry, frustrated and upset when he found out that Uber had charged him wait time fees because of his disability and refused to provide refunds after previously providing refunds,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit seeks a court order to bar Uber from imposing wait time fees on disabled riders, require the company to compensate aggrieved riders and mandate training for employees and officers on ADA compliance.

This is not the first time Uber has faced legal trouble for allegedly discriminating against disabled passengers. In 2016, the company agreed to start making drivers stop refusing ride requests from blind users who require the aid of service animals. In April, an independent arbitrator ordered the company to pay a $1.1 million award to a blind woman who was verbally abused, threatened and stranded by Uber drivers.  

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