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AMC Theaters Under Fire for Not Allowing 'Reasonable Accommodation'

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

The movie theater megachain AMC recently made headlines as it apologized for kicking out a moviegoer who wanted to bring his own chair due to a disability he suffers. Now they're facing potential legal challenges for violating national disability and civil rights laws.

North Carolina resident Reverend William Barber suffers a condition called ankylosing spondylitis, which is a type of arthritis, which requires him to use a cane. Relevantly, Barber can't sit in the low-bottomed seats that many theaters like AMC provide for their moviegoers. To account for the fact that many public establishments don't have chairs that he can comfortably sit in, Barber has the habit of bringing his own special chair.

But when he went to see The Color Purple with his grandmother last month, he was told he couldn't use his own chair. Not only that, but the AMC management called the local police. After officers arrived and spoke with Barber, he left the theater voluntarily.

It probably didn't help AMC's case that this particular moviegoer was a big name in equal access; Barber was formerly the chair of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Indeed, the situation has turned into a public call-out of the theater company for its policies around accessibility. Let's take a look at what equal access laws AMC is facing, and what is expected to come of potential lawsuits.

ADA Violations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in many areas, including employment, transportation, and public accommodations. The Act prohibits discrimination based on disability in the same way other civil rights laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It requires public accommodations to provide equal access for people with disabilities.

Public accommodations are places that are open to the public and where commerce is carried out. This includes both governmental entities and private businesses. Examples include retail stores, restaurants, hotels, doctors' offices, museums, amusement parks — and of course, movie theaters. Most places you find yourself in actually fall into the category of "public accommodation" for purposes of the ADA -- even those that "sound private." For example, private schools are still considered public accommodations for purposes of that statute.

It's easier to list what's not considered a public accommodation. Religious facilities like churches are generally not considered public accommodations, but when these facilities are rented out to the public for non-religious purposes, they become public accommodations during that period of use. Private membership clubs and facilities are also not covered by the ADA, nor are facilities through companies like AirBnB.

And what is a "reasonable accommodation"? It's more than just having accessible seating. It also includes accommodations for hearing and visual impairments, such as captions and assistive listening devices. Common reasonable accommodations under the ADA cover various aspects of employment, housing, and public services. Sometimes, a reasonable accommodation is something that the premises makes or installs, such as installing ramps, widening doorways, and modifying restrooms. These measures ensure accessibility for people with mobility impairments, such as wheelchair users.

Other times, the patron needs to support reasonable accommodations by allowing certain customers with disabilities to bring in something that would normally not be permitted on the premises. For example, a restaurant that has a no-dog policy may be asked to allow service animals, such as guide dogs or hearing dogs, to accompany individuals with disabilities in workplaces and public spaces.

Civil Rights Implications

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits discrimination in public accommodations. Codified at 42 U.S.C. §2000a, the Civil Rights Act says that "[a]ll persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin."

The NAACP chapter of North Carolina issued a press statement that highlighted how the incident with Rev. Barber was a violation of civil rights, whether through the lens of race or disability: "This incident serves as a powerful reminder that we must create spaces that are inclusive, fair, and respectful of the rights of every individual. Discrimination based on physical abilities has no place in our society, and we must take decisive action to address this issue."

Not AMC's First Tango with Equal Access

This recent incident is nothing new for the theater chain. The company has long been facing lawsuits related to its disability accommodations.

In 2006, the federal government took AMC to court for violations of the ADA by failing to provide access to the stadium section for seating for individuals who use wheelchairs. The government pointed out that the company denied movie-goers who use wheelchairs equal access to the stadium-style seating section at new movie theaters. For one, AMC failed to provide comparable lines of sight for patrons who use wheelchairs in AMC stadium-style theaters. Patrons in wheelchairs could not access the preferred seating area that is located on risers and accessed by stairs. The company was also in ADA violation for having entrances, exits, bathrooms, and concession stands that failed to meet accessibility requirements.

The resolution of the lawsuit included a lot of court orders for AMC to change its policies and improve its theaters to make them more accessible. The court ordered the company to improve wheelchair seating at about 1,200 of their stadium-style theaters, including adding ramps to 360 of them. The company was also required to ensure that any new theater built in the subsequent five years would comply with federal ADA construction guidelines. The company also had to pay $200,000 in damages to the people who complained to the Justice Department about the violations in the first place, along with $100,000 in civil penalties.

Department of Justice Civil Rights Division attorney Wan J. Jim stated: "Providing the same movie-going experience for individuals in wheelchairs that other patrons enjoy delivers on the promise of the ADA. These improvements will make the goals of the ADA a reality for thousands of Americans who want to enjoy this popular form of entertainment."While AMC might have made the required changes, those reasonable accommodations wouldn't have covered Rev. Barber's situation. The case presents a novel issue for the company, but its resolution could impact policies for public establishments well beyond AMC.

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