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If a Federal Courthouse is not Accessible to a Person With a Disability, What Remedies do They Have?


Today’s blog entry is a case sent to me by Prof. Leonard Sandler, a clinical law professor at the University of Iowa. The case of the day is Wilds v. Akhi LLC decided on July 29, 2022 by Magistrate Judge Jones of the Northern District of Florida. It deals with the question of what happens when a person with a service animal shows up at the federal courthouse with his service animal not on a leash. Plaintiff alleged that the animal was under his control and could not be on a leash in order to best compensate for his disability as he has blackouts. The security agency refused to let him in the federal courthouse. So, he sues alleging violation of the ADA and state law claims. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: Federal Buildings Are Exempt from the ADA and a Federal Courthouse Is Not a Place of Public Accommodation; While Plaintiff Has a Constitutional Right of Access to the Courts, He Cannot Enforce That Right against the Defendants under §1983 or under Bivens; While No Private Cause of Action Exists under Florida Statute §1413.08(3), Plaintiff Does Have the Ability to Sue for Damages for Violations of the Florida Civil Rights Act; and Thoughts/Takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.

 

 

I

Federal Buildings Are Exempt from the ADA and a Federal Courthouse Is Not a Place of Public Accommodation

 

  1. Only one Federal District Ct. has addressed the question of whether a federal courthouse constitutes a place of public accommodation under title III of the ADA. That court held that a federal courthouse was not a public accommodation.
  2. The lack of case law on whether a federal courthouse constitutes a public accommodation under title III of the ADA is likely because federal governmental buildings are generally exempt from the ADA.
  3. Federal buildings are governed by the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968.
  4. The Architectural Barriers Act does not provide a private right of action and courts have refused to imply one.
  5. An aggrieved person under the Architectural Barriers Act may file a complaint with the U.S. Access Board regarding any alleged Architectural Barriers Act violation.
  6. Courts allowing a private cause of action under the Architectural Barriers Act, have insisted that a litigant must first exhaust his administrative remedies with the Architectural Barriers Board before filing suit in federal court. Accordingly, a remedy the plaintiff has is to file a complaint with the Access Board.

 

II

While Plaintiff Has a Constitutional Right of Access to the Courts, He Cannot Enforce That Right against the Defendants under §1983 or under Bivens

 

  1. The defendants, the security companies providing security services to this particular federal court, are not state actors.
  2. The United States Supreme Court has refused to extend Bivens to private entities.
  3. Defendants are federal contractors and §1983 does not provide a cause of action against a federal official or contractor.
  4. By its own terms, §1983 only applies to state actors acting under color of state law and not to federal actors acting under color of federal law.
  5. A Bivens claim is available when a federal actor violates a plaintiff’s federal rights while acting under color of federal law. However, the United States Supreme Court has refused to extend Bivens liability to private entities that contract with the federal government.
  6. Since the purpose of Bivens is to deter individual federal officers from committing constitutional violations, inferring a constitutional tort remedy against a private entity is not possible.
  7. The defendants are private security companies providing security services for U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in the Gainesville division under a federal contract.
  8. The Supreme Court has said that merely private conduct, no matter how discriminatory or wrongful, does not constitute state or federal action and is excluded from §1983 or Bivens.

 

III

While No Private Cause of Action Exists under Florida Statute §413.08(3), Plaintiff Does Have the Ability to Sue for Damages for Violations of the Florida Civil Rights Act

 

  1. Florida courts have refused to recognize a private right of action under §413.08 of the Florida statutes.
  2. Plaintiff may seek relief under Florida statute §760.01.
  3. The Florida Civil Rights Act provides a mechanism to obtain private relief and damages under §413.08 because §760.07 states that any violation of any Florida statute making discrimination unlawful gives rise to a cause of action for damages.
  4. Since plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the court construes a state law claims for violations of §413.08(3) to arise under the Florida Civil Rights Act.
  5. Whether plaintiff can bring a Florida Civil Rights Act claim against defendants denying him access to a federal building is a question that should be decided by Florida courts and not the federal court because plaintiff has no federal claim.
  6. A court should decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over state law claim when the court is dismissing all federal causes of action.
  7. In a footnote, the court noted that even if a federal courthouse was somehow considered to be a place of public accommodation under title III, the particular defendants sued in this case do not own, lease, or operate it. Instead, federal courthouses are owned and operated by the Gen. Services Administration of the United States government. Also, very few courts have considered whether security officers can be characterized as owners, lessors, or operators under title III of the ADA and those that did decided in the negative.
  8. In another footnote, the court noted that the Supreme Court recognize a constitutional right of access to the courts arising under the 14th amendment in the case of Tennessee v. Lane. Florida courts have recognized a number of affirmative obligation flowing from that principle, including: the duty to waive filing fees and in certain family law and criminal cases; the duty to provide transcript to criminal defendants seeking review of their conviction; and the duty to provide counsel to certain criminal defendants. Each of those cases make clear that ordinary considerations of cost and convenience alone cannot justify a State’s failure to provide individuals with meaningful right of access to the courts.
  9. In another footnote, the court notes that the Florida Civil Rights Act has exhaustion requirements.

IV

Thoughts/Takeaways

 

  1. I cannot see how federal courthouses can be a place of public accommodation.
  2. Courts are split on whether the Architectural Barriers Act allows for a private cause of action. At a minimum, a person would need to exhaust administrative remedies first before filing such a suit, assuming such a suit flies in the first place.
  3. Bivens and §1983 are of no help to a plaintiff faced with a similar situation.
  4. State law is something plaintiffs lawyers should look to when dealing with disability discrimination matters. They sometimes go further than federal law or are applied more broadly.
  5. About a month after this decision, the U.S. District Court accepted the magistrate’s report without objections from the parties.
  6. The General Services Administration is an executive agency. So, one wonders why a plaintiff when faced with this situation would not pursue a claim under §504 of the Rehabilitation Act. See for example, Bartell v. Grifols Shared Servs. NA, 1:21CV953 (M.D.N.C. Aug. 15, 2022)-holding that the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA get interpreted the same way when it comes to service animals.
  7. The court did direct the clerk to conduct a reasonable investigation, whatever that means, to see whether plaintiff’s request that he be permitted to enter the courthouse building with his service dog unleashed could be accommodated.



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