On March 5, 2015, the Ninth Circuit held in Chapman v. Pier 1 Imports (U.S.) Inc. that a Pier 1 store located in Vacaville, California, was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Byron Chapman, an individual using a motorized wheelchair, claimed that on each of his 11 visits to the Pier 1 store in 2011 and 2012, the store failed to maintain accessible routes for wheelchair users and that various aisles throughout the store were obstructed with large items such as furniture, display racks, and ladders, causing the aisles to be less than 36 inches wide, the minimum width required by the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (“ADAAG”). As a result of these obstructions, there were times that Chapman could not reach or access items located in those aisles. Chapman also asserted that on at least two of his visits to the store, the accessible sales counter was cluttered with merchandise and other items such as books, coffee cups, and a telephone; consequently, the accessible sales counter was less than 36 inches wide (the required width pursuant to the ADAAG) and prevented him from easily making purchases. Chapman alleged that because the store’s aisles and accessible sales counter were in violation of ADAAG, he had been denied full and equal use of and access to the goods, services, privileges and facilities offered to non-disabled customers. He sought an injunction to require the store to remove these barriers to accessibility.
In support of his claims, Chapman provided a declaration regarding his 11 visits to the store, along with a number of photographs showing the obstructions he encountered. Chapman contended that these obstructions to access were not isolated or temporary interruptions, but rather a systematic pattern of abuse by Pier 1 against people with disabilities.
Pier 1 disputed Chapman’s evidence and submitted a report that contained photographs of three aisles with no obstructions. Additionally, the Pier 1 store manager testified that the store’s monthly merchandise plans directed employees to maintain an aisle width of at least 36 inches when placing merchandise on display. The store manager also testified that due to merchandise moving throughout the store by customers and employees, the store had adopted strategies for ensuring that the aisles remained accessible.
Discrimination against people with disabilities is strictly prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title III of the Act requires full and equal access to the goods, services, and privileges (including the facilities and equipment) offered by retailers, restaurants and other places of public accommodation (“Accommodations”). In order to ensure that Accommodations are readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, Accommodations must maintain the minimum requirements for accessibility set forth in the ADAAG. Included in the ADAAG is a requirement that aisles and other routes of accessibility be a minimum of 36 inches wide, as well as a requirement that at least one register counter be a minimum of 36 inches in length and a maximum of 36 inches in height. The ADAAG requirements further provide that accessible routes must remain unblocked by obstacles such as furniture, filing cabinets, or potted plants.
However, a violation is not deemed to occur if the obstruction to use or access is an “isolated or temporary” interruption, such as when merchandise is in an aisle for the purpose of restocking shelves, as long as the obstruction is removed promptly. This carve-out is not absolute, however, and depends on the circumstances—for example, an interruption caused by repairs is not considered to be “isolated or temporary” if the need for such repairs stems from improper or inadequate maintenance that results in repeated and persistent impediments to use or access, or if the repairs persist beyond a reasonable period of time.
Based on the evidence, the district court held that Pier 1 had violated the ADAAG requirements and issued a permanent injunction preventing Pier 1 from blocking its aisles with merchandise or other items and from cluttering its accessible sales counter with materials other than unavoidable transitory clutter resulting from the then-current use of the counter to purchase merchandise. Pier 1 appealed.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding and upheld the injunction against Pier 1 with respect to its aisles, holding that the obstructions were not isolated or temporary interruptions. The court held that given the frequency of occurrences, the aisle access problem needed to be viewed as a whole and not as a series of individual barriers to access. The evidence presented by Chapman was sufficient to establish that Pier 1 had repeated and persistent failures to maintain accessible routes over a two year period and that Pier 1 had failed to remedy the problem within a reasonable period of time.
Additionally, the Ninth Circuit found that the obstructions were not located in the aisles for the purpose of restocking shelves and therefore, could not be excused from the ADAAG on that basis. The court further explained that Pier 1’s contention that the obstructions were temporary because they would be removed on request or in time was not sufficient to overcome Chapman’s claims. In the court’s view, an obstruction is only temporary if it is promptly removed from its location.
In reviewing the evidence submitted by Pier 1, the Ninth Circuit held that the existence of policies designed to limit obstructions did not establish that the obstructions were isolated or temporary barriers to use and access. Rather, Chapman’s evidence revealed that the Pier 1 monthly merchandise plans and strategies were ineffective.
Accessible Sales Counter
The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s holding regarding the accessible sales counter and held that the obstructions to use or access in this instance were, in fact, isolated or temporary interruptions. The first basis of the court’s holding was that the items listed in Chapman’s expert report (books in a basket, three coffee cups, and a movable telephone) were not sufficient obstructions to prove that Chapman was unable to use or access the accessible sales counter to make his purchase. Next, the court found that the record indicated that items were only present on the accessible sales counter on two or three of Chapman’s visits to the store and therefore did not constitute a repeated and persistent failure to be clear of items. Lastly, the court found that promptly upon Chapman’s arrival to the accessible sales counter, and without Chapman having to ask for assistance, the Pier 1 employees removed the obstructing items so that the interruption did not persist beyond a reasonable period of time.
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court holding and removed the injunction against Pier 1 with respect to its accessible sales counter.
Based on this ruling, it is imperative for retailers to keep in mind that merely having policies and procedures in place to maintain accessibility and use is insufficient on its own to cause compliance with Title III; these policies and procedures must prove to be effective. In addition, multiple incidents throughout a store (e.g., 11 times over a two-year span) may be viewed as a systematic failure sufficient to cause a violation, as opposed to isolated incidents.