Sports Law Blog
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Wednesday, November 21, 2007
DOJ Joins Disabled Veterans in Action Against U of Michigan's 'Big House'
One of the more notable aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act is the statute's requirement that public facilities be accessible to disabled patrons. The question is, however, is in the details and this law -- as laudable as it is -- did not provide very many. Instead, the framers of the statute left the regulatory nitty-gritty to the Department of Justice to iron out.
Like a ceramics artist who creates a work from a mass of wet clay, the DOJ created its standards from similarly hazy circumstances. In doing rtitle III's mandate to ensure "readily accessible and usable for individuals with disabilities" was not adequately defined. Instead the statute directs a board of experts to issue specific guidelines implementing the ADA to the Department of Justice for consideration and adoption. [for more on the process, you can check my article in 8 Marq. Sports L.J. 263 (1998)]. Ultimately, the DOJ essentially adopted a one percent solution and more complex regulations involved adequate sightlines for disabled patrons.
While the DOJ was considering this, a spurt of new stadiums and arenas were being constructed in the mid-1990s and stadium architects and owners had trouble grappling over exactly what the regulations required. The court concluded that the regulations were considered binding, despite some judicial criticism over the confusing process in doing so. (This was noted in Paralyzed Veterans of American v. Ellerbe Becket, 950 F. Supp. 393 (D.D.C 1996) and in its appeal, found at Paralyzed Veterans of Am. v. D.C. Arena, 117 F.3d 579 (1997)
I thought of the regulatory history when I read that the DOJ joined a lawsuit by the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, claiming that the stadium violated the ADA seating rules. It alleges that the seats are no adequate distributed around the stadium and fell short of the 1 percent requirement.a lawsuit against the University of Michigan's football stadium (known as "the big house").
Although the Michigan stadium dates about 100 years, renovations in 1997 bring it under the purview of the ADA regulations. The suit claims that negotiations between the parties were not successful and with only 88 seats out of 102,000, it falls below the 1 percent standard. Also, the complaint notes that the disabled seating was not dispersed throughout the stadium as all the seats are in the end zones. It adds that accessible toilets, concession stands, souvenir shops or parking was lacking. The University denies these claims.
Although the stadium is the nation's largest, that does not mean that it is necessarily willing to carve out more disabled seating. From the University's point of view, crafting disabled seating would mean taking out seating for non-disabled patrons and would likely result in a loss of seats. Generally (although not always) one disabled seat or space takes the place of two non-disabled seats, meaning a loss of people and revenues. For a venue that regularly sells out, that is not an insignificant issue. Feelings could be hurt and anger may result between non-disabled fans (who may have lost their seats) and the disabled fans who wish to see games. Still, it surprises me that the University has not settled the case. The lawsuit places an prestigious and venerable institution (with an equally prestigious and venerable football team) in the position of defendant a status quo that excludes and stigmatizes disabled patrons.
I will be following this case and will report on any updates.