Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
833 F.3d 530
August 15, 2016
Keywords: ADA Title III, public accommodation, sales establishment, technology, visual impairment
Technology has generally moved towards designs that are more accessible but vending machines have lagged behind. The plaintiff in this case, Emmett Magee, a man with visual impairments, could not use Coca-Cola’s new vending machines.
However, who to sue over this was a difficult question. Magee sued Coca-Cola, who makes the machines, rather than suing the store or place where the machine was located. The court held that this was the wrong approach. Under the 5th Circuit’s holding, to sue for inaccessible equipment or other features of a store, airport, hospital, etc., plaintiffs must sue the specific place where the equipment is installed, rather than its maker.
Coca-Cola makes glass-front vending machines, which are not accessible to people with visual impairments. Magee, who is legally blind, sued Coca-Cola after encountering these vending machines in a hospital and bus station. The court ruled that the vending machines themselves were not public accommodations under the ADA. This meant Coca-Cola was not liable for the vending machines. The Court left open the possibility of suing the places that provide these vending machines.
Since 2000, Coca-Cola has made glass front vending machines. Coca-Cola leases the machines to many locations. They remain the owners and maintain the machines. These machines are relatively high-tech, with a number of “smart features.” These include motion sensor technology, Internet connection, and smart phone connections. To choose a drink, a code must be entered on a keypad. The codes can be seen through the glass front underneath the products. The keypad does not have tactile indicators to help differentiate between numbers and letters. The machines require vision, and do not provide audio descriptions of the products or the codes.
Emmett Magee is a man with macular degeneration. This condition means he is legally blind. Magee encountered glass front vending machines a number of times. Specifically, they were in a hospital and bus station in Louisiana. According to Magee, these vending machines are inaccessible to people with visual impairments. Magee claims that he was unable to (1) identify the products, (2) identify the codes, (3) enter the correct code for a product, and (4) purchase products.
Magee offered a number of ways that Coca-Cola could make the machines accessible. These included adding audio cues and tactile indicators, creating a non-visual smartphone application, and adding toll-free hotlines to get information.
Magee sued Coca-Cola under Title III of the American’s with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). He claimed that their use of inaccessible vending machines was disability-based discrimination. Magee did not sue the hospital or the bus station where he found the vending machines. The District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana dismissed Magee’s claim. They held that the vending machines were not “places of public accommodation.” Magee appealed.
Title III of the ADA states:
“No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation” [emphasis added].
In order to hold Coca-Cola responsible, Magee had to show that they owned, leased, or operated a place of public accommodation. Coca-Cola owned and operated the vending machines. They did not own or operate the hospital and bus station where the vending machines were found. That meant Magee had to show that the vending machines themselves were places of public accommodation.
The ADA defines “public accommodation” as a private entity that fits into one of 12 categories. Of those categories, Magee said that the vending machines were “a bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment.” Specifically, he said that the vending machines were a sales establishment.
Magee also relies on the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) regulations interpreting the ADA. The DOJ lists the same 12 categories as the ADA, but added that a place of public accommodations is a “facility” that fits within those categories. The definition of “facility” includes such terms as equipment, property, or structure. Magee argued that vending machines fit within those categories.
The district court held that the vending machines must comply with the ADA. That was because they are the “personal property or equipment” of the hospital or bus station, where they are located. In that case, the hospital and bus station are places of public accommodation. The vending machines are their property or equipment under the ADA. The district court dismissed the claim because Magee sued Coca-Cola rather than the bus station or hospital.
Magee appealed to the Fifth Circuit. He argued that vending machines are “sales establishments” under the ADA. Because the term “sales establishment” is not defined by the ADA, the court looked to many sources for its meaning. First, they looked at how it is used in the ADA. They looked at the list of actual, physical retail stores: “a bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment.” They note that a vending machine could ‘technically’ be seen as a “sales establishment,” but that it is not like the other stores listed.
The court looked to dictionary definitions of “establishment.” They determined that an “establishment” is more like a building, which has furniture and equipment in it. The vending machine would be more like the equipment in the establishment.
The court also looked at two reports written by the House of Representatives about the ADA. Those reports list many examples of what could be a “sales establishment”, and they were all types of retail stores. Therefore, if they were to decide a vending machine as a “sales establishment”, they might stretch the meaning of the term beyond what Congress intended.
Finally, recall that the DOJ included a “facility” as a place of public accommodation, and defined “facility” to include equipment, property, or structure. The court did not address whether a vending machine was a facility. Because they decided that a vending machine did not fit within the ADA definition, they also held that they did not need to consider the DOJ definition.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court, and dismissed Magee’s claim. They held that vending machines are not sales establishments within the meaning of the ADA. This means that they are not a public accommodation. Thus, because Coca-Cola did not own, lease, or operate a public accommodation, the case was dismissed.
Although Magee appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, on October 2, 2017, the Court rejected his petition to review the case. However, the Fifth Circuit and District Court each took care to suggest Magee’s next course of action. Both courts made it clear that Magee could sue the specific locations of the vending machines, and would likely win. Bus stations and hospitals are places of public accommodation. This means that their personal property or equipment must be accessible. This may be a better path to achieving a similar goal.
This decision may create a strange path forward. Businesses using inaccessible vending machines may be sued and lose. The burden of these machines would fall on the businesses, and not on the company that made them. This may pressure Coca-Cola into making accessible machines or perhaps businesses will start using older machines again that were accessible, or will switch to a company that develops accessible machines.