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Taco Bell awaits sanctions in accessibility suit

Taco Bell is expected to appeal ruling that it violated Americans with Disabilities Act

A recent federal court decision that found Taco Bell in violation of federal and state laws protecting the rights of customers who use wheelchairs or scooters should motivate restaurant operators to comply with access rules, attorneys say.

Observers expect the Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell to appeal the Oct. 5 ruling in the class-action case. A spokesman for the company declined to comment.

However, sanctions against Taco Bell are still pending and could potentially total millions of dollars under California law.

Filed in 2002, the lawsuit alleges that more than 200 Taco Bell restaurants in California had numerous barriers for access to customers who use wheelchairs and scooters, violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and state law.

According to the lawsuit, Taco Bell’s service lines and doorways were too narrow, and doors were hard to open. The restrooms and parking areas were deemed inaccessible, as were some seating areas and the condiment counter, along with other violations.

Taco Bell has argued that most of the violations have been fixed.

Still, U.S. District Court judge Phyllis Hamilton allowed the case to continue, in part because of Taco Bell’s “pattern of past violations.”

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The ruling earlier this month came after a trial held in a San Pablo, Calif., Taco Bell unit in June. The location was used as an example of conditions at other company-operated stores in California.

Few ADA cases go to trial, with the parties typically settling, ADA experts in California said.

Richard Segal, an attorney for Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in San Diego who was not involved in the case, said the Taco Bell case could be very expensive.

“This decision is one that should be something of a wake-up call for restaurants,” Segal said. “Merely fixing a violation once a lawsuit is brought might not get you off the hook.”

ADA suits around the industry

Taco Bell is one of a number of restaurant chains that recently have been targeted by the plaintiff’s attorneys on behalf of disabled clients.

Tim Fox, the Denver attorney representing Francie Moeller and others who sued Taco Bell, also filed a class-action lawsuit against Miami-based Burger King Corp., citing problems with wheelchair access among 10 units the burger chain leased in California.

That case was settled last year, with Burger King agreeing to pay damages of about $5 million, without admission of liability, according to the settlement agreement.

A second, potentially larger class-action suit filed by the same plaintiffs citing violations at another 86 Burger King locations in California also is underway, according to Burger King’s 2010 annual report filed in March.

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. also is appealing a court ruling last year that found the Denver-based chain in violation of ADA requirements, as wheelchair-bound guests couldn’t enjoy the full “Chipotle experience” of watching their food prepared because the service line wall was too high.

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In its 2010 annual report, Chipotle officials said they already have lowered the height of the service line wall, both in California stores and most others outside the state. The case is still pending.

California is a hotbed for such litigation in part because state law permits the “monetary sting” of damages, Segal said.

Potential penalties

Under California law, violators of ADA rules theoretically face a statutory penalty per incident of either $4,000 or $1,000 for each person in the class, depending on the statute cited and whether the violation was intentional, said Janet Grumer, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Los Angeles.

How such penalties might be applied in the Taco Bell case is yet to be determined, Segal said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs also are seeking an injunction against Taco Bell for future violations. The court is holding off on that decision until after it rules on a motion by Taco Bell to decertify the lawsuit’s class-action status, according to court documents. In her ruling, however, Hamilton noted that the injunction sought was “overly broad.”

An injunction could raise the stakes significantly, as any future problem with ADA compliance would not only violate state and federal laws, Segal said, “you’re also violating a direct court order against you.”

Grumer of Davis Wright Tremaine said the lesson for restaurant operators is to take a good look at their ADA and state law compliances on access for disabled customers.

“Restaurant owners should be proactive and do what they can before they get sued,” Grumer said.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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