On March 15, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an important decision that addressed the parameters of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well the local D.C. Human Rights Act (DCHRA). In Equal Rights Center v. Uber Technologies, Inc. (PDF), 2021 WL 981011, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson held that Uber could be liable for failing to provide its transportation services in a manner that may be equally and fully enjoyed by people who use wheelchairs.
The ruling denied Uber Technologies, Inc.’s ("Uber") Motion to Dismiss which was based in part on the argument that Uber was exempt from the application of the ADA and DCHRA in this instance. The Court’s dismissal paves the way for a full trial on the merits of plaintiff’s claim.
The Equal Rights Center (ERC) was formed in 1999 by a merger of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington and the Fair Employment Council of Greater Washington. The center’s mission is to identify and end discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations in Washington, D.C. and nationally.
Based on its investigative findings from civil rights testing efforts, the ERC filed its suit in 2017 alleging that Uber systematically discriminates against people with disabilities in the District of Columbia who use wheelchairs. The lawsuit was based on the results of testing by people posing as Uber customers. ERC alleged that its testing revealed that Uber was charging higher fares and creating longer waiting times for wheelchair users. As described by the Court:
(The) Equal Rights Center (‘ERC’) allege(d) that defendant Uber – a company that maintains a ride-sharing application that connects users to drivers – systemically discriminates against those disabled individuals in the District of Columbia who use non-foldable wheelchairs, because Uber’s wheelchair accessible ride-share services are allegedly far less reliable and predictable than its non-wheelchair accessible offerings.
Uber argued that it did not fit into the category of a public transportation service and it was therefore not subject to the anti-discrimination requirements of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Uber’s Motion to Dismiss also argued as a threshold matter that ERC did not have standing to bring the suit because neither ERC itself nor its members were the parties directly harmed.
The Court’s decision
The Court at the outset held that the ERC did have standing to assert claims on behalf of their members. The court reasoned that the ERC "has associational standing to bring the complaint’s ADA and DCHRA claims on behalf of its members."
The Court then addressed Uber’s fundamental argument, and the arguments of other ride sharing companies, that it is not a public transportation company but rather a technology application service designed to simply facilitate a connection between private drivers and people looking for a ride. In rebutting this position, Judge Jackson stated:
Indeed, according to the complaint, Uber advertises its service as having ‘[t]ap a button, get a ride’ convenience, and that description indisputably entails providing public transportation to the general public ‘on a regular and continuing basis…Uber’s assertion that it is not ‘engaged in the business of transporting people’ - either because it is simply a technology company that acts as a conduit between drivers and riders, or because it primarily ‘develops and licenses sophisticated software’ rather than providing transportation - is not a given.
The court pointed out that the ERC had properly alleged that Uber does qualify as a transportation service under both the ADA and the DCHRA. According to Judge Jackson, the ERC also properly alleged circumstances that could reasonably "sustain discrimination claims under the cited statutes…(and) this Court easily finds it plausible that Uber’s alleged failure to address policies that may contribute to the purported dearth of wheelchair accessible vehicles in its fleet…qualifies as conduct that discriminates against persons with disabilities."
It is important to note that the threshold for defeating a Motion to Dismiss is relatively low (PDF). In ruling on a Motion to Dismiss, the Court is limited to ascertaining whether the allegations in the Complaint, as pled, are sufficient to state a cause of action. In other words, the Court must assume the allegations in the Complaint are true for purposes of determining whether a Compliant will survive a Motion to Dismiss. The Court has now opened the door for a potential trial where an ultimate decision will be based on the law and all the factual details supporting or contacting the claim.
Nevertheless, this decision is important. Certainly, the Court could have dismissed this case if it had determined that there was no plausible way that the ADA or DCHRA could apply or that the alleged behavior of Uber drivers could not constitute discrimination.
Uber has walked a fine line on several fronts with the conflicting views of the nature of its business. The company has long battled the efforts to classify its drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. Were Uber to lose a case such as this, it would undoubtedly be obliged to take significant steps to control the behavior of its drivers in dealing with people with disabilities. This increased level of control over drivers would severally limit its continuing ability to call its drivers independent contractors and it can be anticipated that Uber will continue its battle in this case.
The ERC, in its press release concerning the decisions was optimistic about the beneficial consequences of Judge Jackson’s decision:
We believe Monday’s decision will open doors for wheelchair users and ultimately allow them to finally experience the freedom of on-demand ride services that others enjoy. As a result, we remain hopeful that Uber will take decisive action to address the discrimination our complaint alleges.