Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
616 F.3d 476 (Aug. 23, 2010) and 657 F.3d 215 (Sep. 15, 2011)
Keywords: Title II of the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, statute of limitations, accrual, public services, discrimination, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
Summary: The plaintiffs live in Arlington, Texas and are individuals with disabilities who use motorized wheelchairs. They encountered several inaccessible curbs, sidewalks, and parking lots in Arlington and sued the city under Title II, asking for an injunction requiring the City to make the sidewalks accessible. The Court addressed two questions in resolving this suit: (1) whether sidewalks are covered by Title II; and (2) the time frame in which the plaintiffs could bring a claim, that is, whether the statute of limitations began to run when the city first built the sidewalks or when the plaintiffs first encountered the inaccessible sidewalks.
Regarding the first issue, the court considered case law from the Ninth Circuit, the definition of services in the dictionary, and the ADA's legislative history, holding that sidewalks, curbs, and parking lots are themselves services that must comply with the requirements of Title II. Further, the court held that the statute of limitations began to run when the plaintiffs encountered the inaccessible sidewalks. To do otherwise, the court reasoned, would impermissibly insulate the city from future causes of action and would go against the purpose and intent of Title II.
The plaintiffs live in Arlington, Texas and are individuals with physical disabilities who use motorized wheelchairs. In their complaint they pointed out over one hundred curbs and improperly maintained sidewalks that impeded their safe travel and three public facilities with no accessible parking.
They alleged violations of Title II of the ADA, which prohibits a public entity from discriminating on the basis of disability, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits the same for recipients of federal funds. As a remedy, the plaintiffs sought an injunction against the city, requiring it to make all curbs, sidewalks, and parking lots compliant.
The district court granted the City’s motion to dismiss holding that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the applicable two-year statute of limitations, which began to run when the City originally completed the construction or alteration of any noncompliant curb, sidewalk, or parking lot. On appeal the Fifth Circuit held that the burden for determining the statute of limitations is on the defendant and that the district court erroneously put that burden on the plaintiffs. Additionally, the court was unable to reach a unanimous decision as to whether the claims accrued when the City constructed the inaccessible curbs, sidewalks, and parking lots, or when the plaintiffs encountered them.
Both parties petitioned for a rehearing, which was granted, and the Fifth Circuit withdrew its first opinion and issued a revised one. The court held that “sidewalks are not services, programs, or activities of a public entity”, and therefore the plaintiffs did not have a private right of action to enforce Title II with respect to them. The court remanded the case to the district court to consider the plaintiffs’ private right of action only with respect to those noncompliant sidewalks that denied them access to programs and services that fall under Title II. Further, the court held that their claims began to accrue when they encountered the inaccessible sidewalks.
Both parties petitioned for a second rehearing “en banc” — a type of hearing before all of the court’s judges used for especially complex cases or cases of great public importance — which the Fifth Circuit granted. Here the court considered whether the plaintiffs had a private right of action to enforce Title II with respect to the sidewalks regardless of whether they provide access to programs and services that fall under Title II, and if so, when that cause of action began to accrue.
The Fifth Circuit recognized that “Title II provides that no individual with a qualifying disability shall, ‘by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of’ state or city provided ‘services, programs, or activities.’” It began its analysis by noting that Title II applies to newly built and altered sidewalks. The ADA does not define “services, programs, or activities of a public entity.” The Court interpreted Title II through the lens of the Rehabilitation Act which addresses the same subject matter. As a result the Court considered whether sidewalks are a service, program, or activity under the ADA in light of the Rehabilitation Act’s definition of program or activity as “all of the operations of ... a local government.”
After illustrating that it didn’t matter whether the inaccessible sidewalks denied access to programs and services that fall under Title II, or were services themselves, the Court held that all sidewalks are services. The Court looked to the Supreme Court of the United State’s decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, Webster’s Dictionary, and Black’s Law dictionary for the meaning of “service.” The Fifth Circuit applied each definition to the facts of this case and found that under a common understanding of “service,” building or altering sidewalks are a service, program, or activity of a public entity.
This holding brought the Fifth Circuit into agreement with the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Barden v. City of Sacramento. The Ninth Circuit under identical facts held that Title II’s prohibition of discrimination with respect to public services extends to the maintenance of public sidewalks. The court reasoned that maintaining sidewalks is a normal duty of a municipality.
Neither Title II nor the Rehabilitation Act provides a statute of limitations period. Generally, when Congress does not establish a limitations period for a federal cause of action, a court will use the most analogous period from state law. When a Plaintiff is injured, such that a court could provide relief, their cause of action begins to accrue. But, the Court noted that a wrongful act does not have to coincide with an injury. Here, though the city’s wrongful act occurred when it built inaccessible sidewalks, the Plaintiff’s injury did not occur until they were unable to access those sidewalks. Therefore, their cause of action did not begin to accrue, and the statute of limitations did not begin to run, until that point.
There is a private right to sue to enforce the accessibility of a City’s sidewalks under Title II, and those actions begin to accrue when a resident knew, or should have known, they were being denied the benefit of the sidewalks.
The issue of whether curbs, sidewalks, and parking lots are services, programs, or activities under Title II of the ADA was one of “first impression” in the Fifth Circuit — an issue that the court had not previously addressed. The Court initially declined to follow the Ninth Circuit and its holding that maintaining a public sidewalk is a responsibility of the city, therefore, maintaining the sidewalk’s accessibility falls under Title II. However, the two circuits came into agreement after the Fifth Circuit’s second rehearing.