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Uber skirts federal trial on overcharged disabled riders

A settlement means Uber will avoid a November trial on claims the ride-hail giant violates federal disability rights law by charging disabled riders for taking too long to board vehicles.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Uber has agreed to compensate thousands of disabled riders who were penalized for keeping drivers waiting longer than two minutes, avoiding a federal trial set for November on disability discrimination claims.

Under the settlement with the Department of Justice, Uber will waive “wait-time” fees for riders who certify that they need more time to board vehicles due to disability and compensate 65,000 people who signed up for the waiver program as of May 12, 2022. The Justice Department said this group will be credited double the amount of wait-time fees they were ever charged, “which could amount to potentially hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in compensation.”

More than 1,000 riders who complained to Uber after being charged wait-time penalties will be eligible for a payment of at least $600 from a $1,738,500 fund. Other riders who complained directly to the Justice Department will be compensated from a separate $500,000 pot.

“People with disabilities should not be made to feel like second-class citizens or punished because of their disability, which is exactly what Uber’s wait time fee policy did,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement Monday. “This agreement sends a strong message that Uber and other ride-sharing companies will be held accountable if their services discriminate against people with disabilities.”

The justice department sued Uber last year over its practice of charging all riders fees starting two minutes after an Uber vehicles arrives at its pickup location. The government claimed Uber was aware that some riders needed more time to board vehicles, but still refused to refund disabled passengers who complained directly to the company about wait-time fees.

In its lawsuit, the feds 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 2020, 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.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup refused to toss the case at a hearing in April, where Uber attorneys argued that the wait-time fee applies evenly to all riders regardless of disability.

Alsup was unconvinced, and ordered the Justice Department to figure out how often disabled riders are charged waiting penalties compared to nondisabled riders.

Uber contends it has a longstanding policy of refunding disabled riders who are charged wait-time fees, though the Justice Department’s lawsuit says the company sometimes denied refund requests.

“We’re pleased to have reached this agreement with the Department of Justice, and look forward to continuing to help everyone move easily around their communities,” an Uber spokesperson said Monday. “It has long been our policy to refund wait-time fees for riders with a disability when they alerted us that they were charged, and prior to this matter being filed we made changes so that any rider who shares that they have a disability would have wait-time fees waived automatically. We are always working to improve accessibility for all users and encourage riders with a disability to utilize our self-declaration form to have wait-time fees waived.”

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