JACKSONVILLE -- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit on Aug. 17 affirmed in part, reversed in part and vacated in part a summary judgment in favor of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts after nearly 50 families who have children with autism accused the park of violating Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Judge Frank M. Hull wrote the opinion.
There were initially 44 lawsuits in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. One plaintiff filed a lawsuit individually, and six voluntarily dismissed their claims, leaving 37 cases. Only 29 appealed in the current court.
The district court granted Disney its motion for summary judgment after the initial plaintiffs stated Disney didn’t accommodate their disabilities, which include not having a concept of time and subsequently not being able to wait for rides. It asked for Disney to be ordered to have rides available almost immediately to help maintain and manage those with disabilities.
Disney argued it provides the Disability Access Service (DAS) program that allows disabled attendees to wait less than 15 minutes for a majority of the rides, schedule appointments for the rides, and not have to stand in line for any ride. It added that it also provides more specific accommodations for those who have a DAS card, and advised guests to plan their visits in advance to prevent a negative experience.
One element in the ongoing case was the plaintiffs are unable to wait and must follow the same routine because of their severe autism. Still, the district court ruled in favor of Disney after it decided the requests aren’t necessarily from the neurological issues but rather from their parents’ preferences. Yet, parents said their children suffered meltdowns, some that were harming themselves and others, when they had to wait in line for a ride.
Ultimately, the district court sided with Disney, ruling the additional accommodations the plaintiffs requested weren’t necessary because Disney has already given plaintiffs the chance to experience the park in a similar way to their counterparts without disabilitis, plaintiffs are able to wait in a car or on a plane to get to the park, so they can wait with a DAS card to get on a ride. The district court also decided DAS offers equal access to those with disabilities.
The appeals court first evaluated the definition of what is considered necessary under the ADA. It looked at two ideas: how guests who don’t have disabilities use Disney’s facilities, and if the DAS card offers guests with disabilities a chance to have a similar experience.
When it comes to how non-disabled guests use the facilities, the appeals court determined it was similar to the disabled guests (i.e. both groups have to plan ahead make reservations for rides in advance). Still, a difference is that non-disabled guests have to wait longer than 15 minutes, and at times more than an hour, for a ride.
When it comes to comparing the overall experiences, the appeals court also found the DAS card allows disabled guests to have a similar experience. Still, the appeals court decided, “the DAS card, as good as it may be, still fails to address the plaintiffs’ alleged impairments of the inability to wait virtually for rides and the need to adhere to a routine order of rides or repeat rides.” Considering this, the court vacated the summary judgment concerning the necessary-modification argument.
The appeals court then looked at reasonableness and fundamental alteration of the DAS card. Because the plaintiffs wanted to change it, and not get rid of it altogether, the appeals court decided the district court would need to address and iron out the matter.
As for the intentional discrimination cause of action argument, the appeals court pointed out it was count one of the plaintiffs’ issues with Disney’s alleged violation of the ADA when it refused to make certain accommodations for them.
The appeals court mentioned that the plaintiffs’ complaints did not provide a cause of action that proved Disney intentionally violated the ADA. It affirmed the lower court’s decision in this issue. The appeals court also reversed the district court’s decision when it comes to the plaintiffs’ standing.