The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS PENFIELD JACKSON
Plaintiff Marc Fiedler is a quadriplegic movie-goer in Washington, D.C., who uses a wheelchair to ambulate.
Defendant American Multi-Cinema, Inc. ("AMC") is a nationwide operator of movie theaters, one of which is the Avenue Grand, located on the basement concourse of Union Station, the principal passenger railway terminal in Washington, D.C.
The only wheelchair seating available to Mr. Fiedler when he attends the Avenue Grand Theater is one of two wheelchair sites situated at the very back of the theater, in the last row of conventional seats farthest from the screen.
Union Station is owned by the United States and managed by the Department of Transportation, ("DOT"), an agency in the executive branch of the federal government. The Avenue Grand premises (and its sister theaters) are leased to AMC by DOT. Both the construction of the Avenue Grand Theater and the lease thereof to AMC antedate the enactment and the effective date of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12181 et seq., which provides in pertinent part,
No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.
Title III of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a); 28 C.F.R. § 36.201(a).
Plaintiff Fiedler brings this three-count complaint against AMC alleging, in the first count, that AMC's placement of wheelchair seating in the Avenue Grand Theater violates the ADA. By relegating him to inferior seating in the back of the theater when he goes to see a movie at the Avenue Grand, Fiedler alleges that AMC deprives him of full and equal enjoyment of the facilities to which he, as a disabled person, is entitled under the ADA. As the ADA authorizes a private victim of discrimination to do, he prays for an injunction directing AMC to so reconfigure the seating in the Avenue Grand as to enable him to occupy a wheelchair seat situated in the fourth or fifth rows of the theater.
In the second count of his complaint, Fiedler asks for similar injunctive relief under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 1-2501 et seq., with respect to the Avenue Grand's eight smaller sister theaters, each of which has a seating capacity below the ADA's threshold of 300 seats. In the third and final count of his complaint, Fiedler asks for an award of compensatory damages from AMC for the common law tort of failing to furnish facilities to a member of the public without discrimination. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 866.
AMC has moved for summary judgment on the entire complaint, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, on several grounds. Fiedler, joined by the United States as amicus curiae, opposes the motion. AMC contends that the ADA is inapplicable to its Union Station premises by virtue of its status as a lessee of an entity itself not subject to the provisions of the ADA, namely, the executive branch of the federal government. Second, AMC argues that even if it must comply with the ADA generally, dispersed seating for wheelchair-bound patrons is not required at the Avenue Grand because the theater actually conforms to a technical exception the United States Department of Justice has written into its implementing literature for the ADA, allowing the "clustering" of seating for the disabled in certain circumstances.
Lastly, AMC asserts that the ADA does not require equivalent treatment of the disabled and the able-bodied when to do so would present a "direct threat" to the health or safety of others.
The Court concludes that two of AMC's defenses to Fiedler's claim under the ADA are without merit as a matter of law, and the third presents disputed issues of material fact. Therefore, for the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny AMC's motion for summary judgment with respect to Count One, deferring consideration of the remaining claims until trial.
AMC contends that Title III of the ADA is inapplicable to it because it leases the space for its theaters from an agency in the executive branch of the federal government. The parties agree that the executive branch is exempt from the requirements of Title III of the ADA, and that insofar as government buildings are concerned, executive branch real estate is subject to another federal antidiscrimination regime, namely, the Architectural Barriers Act ("ABA") of 1968, 42 U.S.C. § 4151 et seq.5 AMC argues that since Union Station is a federal building, it is covered only by the ABA, and AMC, as lessee of a federal landlord, can therefore claim the benefit of Union Station's ADA-exempt status for the purpose of avoiding the requirements of the ADA.
By its terms, however, Title III of the ADA applies to a "place of public accommodation," which in turn is defined as "a facility, operated by a private entity, whose operations affect commerce and fall within at least one of the following categories . . . (3) A motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium, or other place of exhibition or entertainment." 28 C.F.R. § 36.104; see also 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7)(C). The Avenue Grand Theater is indisputably a "motion picture house." It is "operated by a private entity," the defendant AMC. And by regulation it has been declared to "affect commerce."
Thus, the Court concludes that the Avenue Grand Theater is a "place of public accommodation" and, as such, is subject to Title III of the ADA.