On September 9, 2014, the National Federation for the Blind of California, along with service animal owners discriminated against by Uber drivers, filed this lawsuit in the U.S District Court for the District of Northern California. The plaintiffs sued Uber Technologies Inc. under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C. §§ 12811 et seq.), the California Unruh Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code §§ 51 & 52), and the California Disabled Persons Act (California Civil Code §§ 54-54.3). Represented by Disability Rights Advocates and by private counsel, plaintiffs sought injunctive and declaratory relief, and damages for the named plaintiffs.
In their complaint, plaintiffs cited a range of discriminatory behavior by Uber drivers towards service animal owners, including refusal to provide service, charging of cancellation fees, negative feedback scores for owners, harassment of service dog owners, and mistreatment of service dogs. Plaintiffs further alleged that Uber’s response to complaints related to service dogs was opaque and insufficient, with Uber generally failing to notify plaintiffs of whether they investigated plaintiffs’ complaints and instead denying any responsibility.
On October 22, 2014, Uber filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the both the NFBC and the other named plaintiffs lacked standing to sue under both state and federal law. Uber also argued that even if the plaintiffs had standing, Uber isn’t a public accommodation and thus isn’t covered by title III of the ADA.
In response to Uber’s motion to dismiss, the United State Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a statement of interest on December 23, 2014, asking the court to consider the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) regulations on Title III, which are granted considerable weight since the DOT is responsible for implementing the ADA. DOT regulations state that Title III applies to any “demand-responsive” service that doesn’t operate on a fixed route, and that private entities cannot “contract away” any responsibilities under the ADA. 49 C.F.R. § 37.3; 49 C.F.R. pt. 37, app. D § 37.23. The DOT regulations further require entities covered by Title III to permit service animals to accompany individuals with disabilities into vehicles, and to apply eligibility criteria that don’t screen them out, unless doing so would make it impossible to provide the service. 49 C.F.R. § 37.167(d); 42 U.S.C. § 12184(b)(1); 49 C.F.R. § 37.5(f). And the regulations also require positive action on the part of private entities to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to avoid discrimination when those modifications would fundamentally alter the service, and to ensure that their personnel are trained to properly assist disabled individuals in a respectful and courteous way, with appropriate attention to the difference among individuals with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 12184(b)(2)(A); 49 C.F.R. § 37.173.
On April 17, 2015, Magistrate-Judge Nathanael M. Cousins denied Uber’s motion to dismiss in its entirety. He found that even if not all Uber drivers had discriminated against blind people with service animals, it was sufficient that some Uber drivers had to bring suit under the ADA, the California Unruh, and the Disabled Persons’ Act. Judge Cousins also found that the NFBC could sue even if some of its members had signed binding arbitration agreements with Uber, because many of its members had not. Judge Cousins didn’t directly respond to the DOJ’s statement of interest. Instead, he found that since there was a possibility that Uber, as a travel service, was covered by the ADA, the parties should have the opportunity to litigate he question of whether the ADA applies to Uber in court. He also found that the California Unruh and Disabled Persons’ Act were intended to afford broader protection than the ADA, which meant that there was sufficient possibility of those laws applying for those questions to be brought to court as well. 103 F. Supp. 3d 1073 (N.D. Cal. 2015).
On April 29, 2016, the parties filed a joint motion for settlement with the court, under which Uber would inform its drivers that they are required to provide service to blind people with service animals, modify their policies relating to cleaning fess charged for messes caused by service animals, make it easier for service animal owners to file complaints, implement enhanced procedures for investigating complaints, submit to third party monitoring, and dismiss drivers receiving multiple plausible complaints. Uber would agree to class action certification for the purposes of the settlement, which would extend to all blind people with service animals who had used, attempted to use, or been deterred from attempting to use transportation through the Uber app. Uber would also agree to pay the National Federation for the Blind of California $75,000 a year for three years, a lump sum of $45,000 to be distributed among the other named plaintiffs, and the plaintiffs’ reasonable attorney’s fees.
The proposed settlement would last for a default period of 3.5 years. A third-party monitor would be appointed to oversee compliance with the agreement, and would have the authority to extend the agreement by 1.5 years if Uber failed to substantially comply with its terms in the second or third year of the agreement. Any disputes related to the monitor or the monitors would be referred first to an arbitration service, and if that fails, to Magistrate Judge Cousins who would have the authority to enact binding resolution. A hearing for formal approval of the settlement is currently scheduled for June 16, 2016. In the meantime, Judge Cousins has issued an order asking the DOJ to issue a second statement in response to the proposed settlement agreement. The DOJ has not yet answered this request. Ryan Berry - 05/24/2016