8th Cir.: discriminatory intent needed for ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims

The Eighth Circuit rejected claims for damages by a woman who was injured on a zoo bridge that violated guidelines under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act.

The court held that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act require plaintiffs to prove discriminatory intent in order to recover compensatory damages, and the plaintiff could not meet this burden. Finally, the court held she lacked standing to challenge a new practice by the zoo, because she did not have any definite plans to visit the zoo again in the future. Meagley v. City of Little Rock, 2011 WL 1631714 (8th Cir. May 2, 2011). Judge Murphy, nominated by Clinton, wrote the court’s opinion.  Judge Loken, nominated by George H. Bush joined the opinion, as did Judge Jarvey of the S.D. Iowa, nominated by George W. Bush, sitting by designation.

Terry Meagley visited the Little Rock Zoo in 2007. Meagley rented a scooter at the zoo because she weighed “about three hundred pounds and had difficulty walking long distances.” Her scooter tipped over on a footbridge and an ambulance took her to the hospital to examine her for injuries. After the accident, the zoo blocked off the footbridge, and the zoo determined that the bridge was too steep according to ADA guidelines and had to be replaced. The zoo replaced the bridges, and also instituted a policy that required individuals renting scooters to sign a liability release. Meagley brought a lawsuit against the City seeking damages and challenging the zoo’s scooter rental fee and the liability waiver.

The first issue the court analyzed was whether plaintiffs seeking damages for claims under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act have to prove that a defendant acted with deliberate indifference to the plaintiffs’ legal rights. The district court in this case concluded that Meagley had to prove the city acted with deliberate indifference by having footbridges that were too steep. Meagley challenged the district court’s conclusion.

The circuit court agreed with the district court that Meagley had to show the city acted with discriminatory intent. The court noted that other circuits to address the issue all found that recovering compensatory damages under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act requires a showing of discriminatory intent. The court cited decisions from the first, second, fourth, fifth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh circuits. Both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act were modeled on Title VI. Since Title VI requires a showing of discriminatory intent before a court can award compensatory damages, the same requirement applies in ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims. The court also accepted the district court’s decision that the plaintiff had to show the city acted with deliberate indifference to demonstrate the required level of discriminatory intent. The court held that Meagley had not satisfied this standard because she had not shown the zoo had any knowledge of the danger of the bridge or any reason to know about the danger. Therefore the court upheld the district court’s ruling that Meagley could not recover compensatory damages from the City.

Next the court rejected Meagley’s claim that the surcharge the zoo imposed for scooter rentals violated the ADA. An ADA regulation, 28 C.F.R. § 35.130(f), bans imposing surcharges on disabled individuals for services that the ADA requires entities to provide. However, the zoo’s scooter rental service was not required by the ADA, and therefore the zoo did not violate the regulation.

Finally the court found that Meagley lacked standing to enjoin the zoo’s new liability waiver form. According to the court, Meagley did not suffer an “injury in fact”. Because the zoo started to use the forms after her visit, she had never been required to sign one of the liability waiver forms. Also, the court did not accept that she intends to return to the zoo. Merely planning to return “some day” was not sufficiently concrete to provide an injury in fact.

This entry was posted in Case Analyses. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.