Law Review: Reasonable Accommodations

Article excerpt

A fitness club refuses to modify league rules for a competitor who is disabled.

In the case of PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661,149 L. Ed. 2d 904,121 S. Ct. 1879(2001), the Supreme Court of the United States determined that the use of a golf cart by a professional golfer with a disability was a reasonable and necessary accommodation required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In so doing, the Court found that the use of a golf cart by the golfer, when all other contestants had to walk, would not "fundamentally alter" the nature of the professional tournament. In the opinion of the Court, the use of carts did not change the fundamental game of golf, the essence of which has always been "shot-making." (Parks & Recreation. September 2001, Vol. 36, Issue 9).

In the case of Kuketz v. Petronelli, 443 Mass. 355; 821 N.E.2d 473; 2005 Mass. LEXIS 13, the Massachusetts Supreme Court applied the reasoning of PGA v. Martin to determine whether the requested waiver of a racquetball rule for a participant who is disabled would fundamentally alter the nature of a competition. In this particular case, a fitness club refused to permit a racquetball player using wheelchair to compete in a highly competitive club league where the player would be permitted to receive two bounces while his opponents using no wheelchair received only one bounce. Plaintiff Kuketz claimed the club's refusal to accommodate his request constituted an act of discrimination on the basis of physical disability in violation of the ADA.

Facts of the case

Stephen B. Kuketz, a paraplegic since 1991, was by 1995 a nationally ranked wheelchair racquetball player. In fall 1994, Kuketz joined the Brockton Athletic Club (Club), a fitness club then owned and operated by MDC Fitness Corporation (MDC). The club sponsored a racquetball league in which men and women competed in divisions organized by gender and ability, with the men's "A" league being the most competitive.

In January 1995, Kuketz paid a nominal league fee and requested placement on the men's "A" league roster. Kuketz wanted to join the men's "A" league so that he could play racquetball against the best players available. In so doing, Kuketz hoped to prepare himself for competing in upcoming international wheelchair events.

Kuketz presumed that he would be granted the accommodation of two bounces in the club's "A" league, while his opponents without a disability would be required to return the ball : after no more than one bounce. The official rules of racquetball, which govern league play, provide that the objective of the game is "to win each rally" and that a player loses a rally when he or she is "unable to hit the ball before it touches the floor twice." ,

The rules further provide for a modification to the standard rules for wheelchair competition, and establish five different levels or "divisions" for such competition. Players in a wheelchair competing within these divisions must return the ball before the third bounce (i.e., "the ball may hit the floor twice before being returned"). Only in the "Multi-Bounce Division" may the ball "bounce as many times as the receiver wants though the player may swing only once to return the ball to the front wall." The rules have no provision governing competitive play between a player in a wheelchair and someone who is not.

Kuketz testified that he had played in the men's "A" league at the Raynham Athletic Club, where he was afforded the customary practice of two bounces against players. When asked how he knew about the custom, he answered, "from other players' experiences."

In a sworn statement, Geno Bonetti, co-founder of the National Wheelchair Racquetball Association, agreed with Kuketz. According to Bonetti, the practice of allowing a player in a wheelchair two bounces and a player who is nondisabled one bounce when competing against each other "was the custom known for the entire time [he] was actively involved in wheelchair racquetball, and from what [he could] gather, has been the custom since in non-tournament, club and/or recreational play. …