SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Uber will no longer tolerate drivers that refuse to pick up blind riders with service animals under the terms of a settlement finalized this week.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins granted final approval to the deal on Tuesday, ending more than two years of litigation over claims that the ride sharing giant discriminated against the blind.
Attorneys for the National Federation of the Blind and three Uber users who sued the ride-hail titan in September 2014 said the deal sends an important message to new technology companies that they must not exclude the disabled.
“I think it’s been an important signal that new companies need to keep the rights of people with disabilities in mind as they develop their systems and grow,” attorney Julia Marks of Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley said.
Under terms of the deal, Uber will require its drivers to confirm they understand the company’s new non-discrimination policy before they can accept any new ride requests. Uber also vowed to terminate drivers that knowingly deny rides to users with service animals, make it easier for users to file discrimination complaints and collect data on incidents of discrimination that will be turned over to a third-party monitor.
“It addresses numerous aspects of the issue from the information drivers receive about their obligations to provide nondiscriminatory service to the ways that riders that do experience discrimination can communicate with Uber and make sure Uber is diligently enforcing the rules about discrimination,” Marks said.
As part of the deal, Uber also agreed to pay the Federation of the Blind $225,000 to send out blind users as “testers” to ensure drivers are complying with the new policy.
Additionally, three named plaintiffs who were previously denied rides because of their service animals will receive $15,000 each as part of the deal.
Mary-Lee Smith, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said the deal should serve as a cautionary tale for new tech firms that make up the emerging sharing economy.
“The sharing economy is not above the law,” Smith said. “New and exciting technologies are being developed, which is a great societal benefit, but it should benefit all people, including people with disabilities.”
Smith is also with Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley.
In his order granting final settlement approval Tuesday, the judge also awarded plaintiffs’ attorneys $2.38 million in attorneys’ fees and $13,447 in costs.
Cousins found applying a 1.5 multiplier to the lawyers’ requested $1.58 million in fees was justified because the attorneys “faced a significant hurdle in overcoming a motion to dismiss, and took the risk associated with raising novel legal issues in complex areas of jurisdictional, employment and discrimination law.”
The judge also noted that the plaintiffs “sought to enhance Uber’s policies to protect blind riders, which can provide a model for other businesses in the sharing economy.”
An Uber spokesman said in an email Wednesday that the company is pleased the final approval of the settlement, but that it “strongly disagrees” with the judge’s ruling on attorneys’ fees and that it may appeal the decision.
Cousins rejected Uber’s arguments that the plaintiffs’ attorneys charged too high an hourly rate, had multiple attorneys do “duplicative work” and worked on trial preparation after settlement negotiations began in May 2015.
The disabled-rights attorneys said they are currently in talks with another ride-hailing firm, Lyft, over its anti-discrimination policies.
In a statement issued this past August, the attorneys said: “Lyft currently has a policy that drivers on their platform must accept riders with service animals, but Lyft agreed to work with these advocates to ensure that disabled individuals are not denied rides or provided a lesser quality of service because they use service animals.”
“The parties are hopeful that they can agree on specific new initiatives to improve access to transportation available through the Lyft platform for all riders with disabilities who use service animals.”