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ADA Goes to the Movies

The Justice Department's civil rights office sues the company that brought stadium seating to movie theaters.

11:00 PM, Jan 23, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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There was, however, a problem. In some of the smaller stadium-seating theaters, the only wheelchair seats were in the "traditional" sloped area at the front of the theater. By any definition, these wheelchair seats were less good than the new stadium seats.

No one had foreseen the advent of stadium-style construction when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. And while there were guidelines for wheelchair seating in "traditional" theaters, in 1995 none existed for AMC except for some vague references to "lines of sight" in Title III. The Justice Department didn't seem eager to clarify matters. In March of 1997, Justice attorney Joe Russo met with a group of theater owners, including AMC, but refused to give them substantive guidance, saying, of Justice, "So, we're not going to take any long-term lasting positions on what we think is required today." And, "I'm not taking any position at all for the Department today." It wasn't until 1998 that Justice Department officials began working with theater owners, and by then, the problem was all but solved.

Because, you see, AMC's design engineers were diligent on their own. After 1995 they worked to refine the stadium concept and figure out ways to improve wheelchair seating. One way was to have patrons enter in the middle of the "stadium" and have handicapped seating on that level with tiers both ascending and descending from the entry level. By 1997, almost all new theaters being built had vastly improved wheelchair seating. By 2001, when the AMC Hoffman Center opened in Alexandria, Virginia, the handicapped seats were the best in the house--fully centered, half-way back, with no one on either side of them and plenty of room for companions. Because of stadium seating, every moviegoer's experience was enhanced, but no one benefited more than those with disabilities.

NONE OF WHICH seemed to register with Bill Lann Lee. In June of 1998, Lee's office went to AMC with concerns over some of the stadium-seat theaters in Southern California. They alleged that many of these theaters violated Title III of the ADA, which insists that in assembly areas wheelchair patrons must be afforded "lines of sight comparable to those for members of the general public."

In particular, Justice was concerned with four theaters: The Promenade 16 (in Woodland Hills), Norwalk 20, Mission Valley 20 (in San Diego), and Fullerton 20. Unable to reach an accommodation, Justice sued AMC in January of 1999. It does not seem to have disturbed Lee--or his Ashcroft-era successors, or Judge Florence-Marie Cooper--that the details of this complaint are ridiculous.

Judge Cooper's ruling against AMC itself makes the ridiculousness clear. She cites one AMC wheelchair patron who complained of "severe neck and eye strain" after watching a particular movie. The movie in question was the 194 minute epic "Titanic," which strained many moviegoers over the age of 15--in that respect, in other words, the complainant's experience was exactly "comparable" to that of the "general public." But in every other respect, admittedly, it was not: the unfortunate lady uses a joystick-controlled wheelchair and must read lips to overcome a severe hearing impairment. How, then, could AMC ever have provided this woman "a movie-going experience comparable to that of other patrons?" Judge Cooper does not say--though she does say that AMC's failure to do so was against the law.

During a brief detour Cooper takes AMC to task on some "subjective" issues. She says that "wheelchair-bound customers experience other conditions that detract from their moviegoing experience. . . . they suffer from a sense of embarrassment and isolation from being relegated to a section of the theater where no one else is sitting. Other customers have described feelings of anger and humiliation, or report a feeling of being watched because everyone else in the audience is behind them." Cooper warns AMC "that an arena owner may not create a 'wheelchair ghetto.'"

But ultimately Cooper's verdict rests heavily on the shoulders of a 19th-century Scottish engineer, John Scott Russell. She concedes that stadium seating was nowhere envisioned by the ADA, but argues that AMC should have intuited the ramifications by studying Russell. Cooper argues that his 1838 work, "Treatise on Sightlines and Seating" is so definitive that AMC should have taken it as if it were the word of God--or at least Bill Lann Lee--and used its conclusions to determine what guidelines were reasonable for wheelchair seating.

Cooper, you see, believes in a living ADA; she says that she "will not interpret [Title III] to be static and inflexible."

But if Russell was so definitive and comprehensive, why wasn't his work enshrined in the ADA back in 1990? And how was AMC supposed to know that Cooper would judge Russell, and not the text of the law, as the ultimate arbiter?