Officials of Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., which this week lost a U.S. appeals court ruling in an Americans With Disabilities Act lawsuit, said the chain has already answered the concerns of the court and the plaintiff, which centered on whether its restaurants deprive wheelchair-using customers of the "Chipotle experience."
The litigation revolves around the claims of Maurizio Antoninetti, who uses a wheelchair, and claimed that at two Southern California Chipotle restaurants he visited in 2005, the counter that separates customers from the display kitchen was so high as to block his view of the ingredients and the sight of his food being assembled.
Antoninetti’s attorney unsuccessfully argued during a four-day trial without a jury in late 2007 that the counter design denied her client full access to the “Chipotle experience,” as marketed by the chain. She maintained that only a court order requiring Chipotle to alter its facilities to permit wheelchair-using guests to fully view food options and preparation in the manner of other guests would bring the foodservice business into ADA compliance.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, Calif., agreed with the plaintiff, ruling Monday that the Denver-based chain of 1,001 fast-casual restaurants was in violation of ADA requirements that businesses not discriminate against the disabled in places of public accommodation. View the complete decision here.
“We respectfully disagree with the court's ruling,” Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said Wednesday.
“However, the matter is largely moot because, several years ago — independent of this lawsuit — we retrofitted all of our California restaurants with a new counter design that eliminates any concern regarding wheelchair accessibility,” Arnold continued. “The new counter design, which is also incorporated into the construction of all new restaurants throughout the country and into all updates of existing restaurants, resolves the concerns presented in this lawsuit.”
By law, Chipotle has 14 days from the date the appeals court ruling was entered to petition for a rehearing before a larger panel of appellate judges.
Antoninetti’s attorney, Amy B. Vandeveld, said Chipotle’s claims of restaurant modifications were news to her, saying the defendant never mentioned such efforts in multiple court appearances and filings in recent years, including April’s arguments before the appeals court.
“If they actually have lowered the walls throughout California, that is terrific because that is what we’ve been fighting for for five years,” said Vandeveld, adding, “They could have told us that.”
If Chipotle’s statements about modifying restaurants are accurate, Vandeveld said to Nation’s Restaurant News, “The question to ask them is, ‘Why did they spend five years and a half a million dollars to litigate this suit?”
Vandeveld said she has filed other litigation seeking class-action status in California related to the Chipotle ADA matter, and has been awaiting the outcome of the Antoninetti case before moving ahead.
Among other things, Chipotle attorneys argued during the original trial before the U.S. District Court for the District of Southern California in San Diego that the chain fulfilled ADA requirements by way of a written policy. That policy, according to court documents, instructed employees to accommodate guests in wheelchair by offering to show them ingredients in spoons, tongs or cups at the counter or at a table, and to assemble their burrito or taco at a location near the cashier station that afforded better visibility.
Trial court Judge Napoleon A. Jones Jr., in a judgment entered on Jan. 10, 2008, agreed with plaintiff’s counsel Vandeveld that Chipotle’s initial attempt at a written accommodation policy did not meet ADA guidelines, but also agreed with Chipotle’s trial attorney John F. Scalia that the chain’s second attempt at a written policy met the measure of the law.
Jones awarded Antoninetti $5,000 of $8,000 in requested damages, and legal fees of $136,537, or a quarter of the $546,151 he sought, but denied Vandeveld’s motion for a court order requiring Chipotle to alter its restaurants.
Vandeveld filed an appeal with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court, which heard arguments in April and handed down its decision Monday.
Among other things, the appeals court judges said they agreed with Vandeveld’s position that Chipotle’s written policy and workaround procedures “do not constitute ‘equivalent facilitation’ because they do not involve ‘use of other designs and technologies’ or ‘provide [him with] substantially equivalent or greater access to and usability of the facility.’”
The written policy and the procedures it spells out “merely provide a substitute experience that lacks the customer's personal participation in the selection and preparation of the food that the full ‘Chipotle experience’ furnishes,” Judge Daniel M. Friedman wrote in the decision.
The appeals court noted the lower court’s questioning of Antoninetti’s “sincerity” as an agent of change on behalf of the disabled in filing ADA lawsuits against more than 20 businesses over the years, while not always returning to those businesses after forcing changes or collecting damages.
“Courts must tread carefully before construing a Disability Act plaintiff's history of litigation against him,” Friedman wrote in the appellate court decision. “As we have noted more than once, '[f]or the [Disabilities Act] to yield its promise of equal access for the disabled, it may indeed be necessary and desirable for committed individuals to bring serial litigation advancing the time when public accommodations will be compliant with the [Disabilities Act].'"
Related to its findings, the appeals court remanded the case back to the trial court with an order to provide the plaintiff with injunctive relief, though it left the form of that relief up to the lower court. The appeals court also vacated the lower court’s award of legal fees to Antoninetti and directed that court to consider providing a larger amount of money in light its finding that the plaintiff’s case had merit.
Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected]