Notes From Babel

Unintended Consequences of Accessibility Laws

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Here’s a shocking example of an unintended consequence of laws ostensibly enacted to help the disabled.  In Donald v. Cafe Royale, Inc., a wheel-chaired plaintiff sued a restaurant.  The restaurant was split level, and although the management happily agreed to have staff assist him upstairs, the plaintiff declined because it would attract attention, and the staff might drop him.  The plaintiff also did not like the layout of the dining area available to accommodate an individual dining in a wheelchair, although again, management offered to accommodate him in any reasonable way they could.

Instead, plaintiff sued the restaurant, and the restaurant thereafter went out of business.  Under the law, the “prevailing party” in such a suit gets awarded his attorneys’ fees.  Because the restaurant’s going under resulted in its dismissal and rendered the lawsuit moot, the court awarded attorneys’ fees to the restaurant.

The court of appeal reversed, however, noting that by putting the restaurant out of business, plaintiff got his desired result—i.e., the restaurant stopped infringing with the accessibility laws. As paraphrased in Heather Farms Homeowners Assn. v. Robinson:

In Donald v. Cafe Royale, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 168, 266 Cal.Rptr. 804, the plaintiff, a physically disabled man, filed suit against a restaurant alleging it had violated the Civil Code by failing to provide him adequate access. Among other things, the plaintiff sought an injunction under section 55 barring the restaurant from continuing its violation in the future. While the suit was pending, the restaurant became insolvent and closed. The trial court ruled the restaurant was the prevailing party on the injunction and awarded it attorney fees. The plaintiff appealed the award and the appellate court reversed: “In the instant case [the plaintiff] filed his section 55 cause of action in order to enjoin [the restaurant’s] operation in violation of the pertinent statutes and administrative code provisions. The cessation of … operation of the restaurant achieved that result. Under these circumstances, it was an abuse of discretion for the court to determine that by going out of business and rendering the issue moot, [the restaurant] ‘prevailed’ for purposes of attorney fees. Neither party prevailed for purposes of an award of attorney fees on the cause of action for injunctive relief.” (Id. at p. 185, 266 Cal.Rptr. 804.)

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 16, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Posted in Law

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