Civil Rights - Americans with Disabilities Act - District Court Approves Settlement Requiring Movie Theaters to Provide Closed Captioning for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People

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Ever since the emergence of "talkies," deaf and hard-of-hearing people have missed out on the cultural phenomenon of going to the movies. Recently, some have brought suits against movie theaters under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), (1) seeking to make captioning an available part of the experience of going to the movies. In two cases, (2) the plaintiffs sought to require captioning in theaters across the country, but the district courts read the ADA narrowly in granting summary judgment for the movie theater defendants. (3) Those two cases are consistent with the recent judicial backlash that has greatly narrowed the scope of the ADA. (4) But in a third case, Ball v. AMC Entertainment, Inc., (5) the plaintiffs survived summary judgment after carefully limiting the relief sought to select theaters within a narrow geographical area. This strategy made it easier for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to remain faithful to the text and purpose of the ADA without having to worry about the practical consequences of ordering nationwide relief. The denial of summary judgment paved the way for the approval of a historic settlement (6) that looked to the promise of new technology to integrate deaf and hard-of-hearing people into the moviegoing experience.

In April 2000, three deaf and hard-of-hearing plaintiffs brought a class action suit against movie theater operators AMC Entertainment, Inc. (AMC) and Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. (Loews) on behalf of deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the Washington, D.C., area. (7) The plaintiffs alleged that the movie theater operators had violated the ADA "by failing to provide them with the reasonable accommodations necessary for full and equal enjoyment of Defendants' services through implementation of captioning and other interpretive aids." (8) The plaintiffs sought relief through installation of rear-window captioning (RWC) in a number of the defendants' theaters. (9) Judge Kessler denied defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding that "neither the ADA nor the [Department of Justice's] implementing regulations explicitly forbid requiring Defendants' movie theaters to exhibit closed captioned films." (10) The court, grounding its analysis in the legislative history of the ADA, read the ADA broadly as providing a "'clear and comprehensive mandate' to eliminate discrimination against disabled individuals and integrate them 'into the economic and social mainstream of American life.'" (11) The court held that closed captioning (12) did not constitute a fundamental alteration of the movie-going experience and that there were material facts in dispute as to whether the installation of RWC constituted an undue burden. (13)

Following the denial of summary judgment, the parties settled. (14) AMC and Loews each agreed to install RWC broadcasting units in six specified theaters within twenty-four months of the final approval of the settlement. (15) At each location, an RWC unit is to be installed in one midsized auditorium (approximately 125 to 350 seats), (16) with the number of seat reflector panels available to the public equal to ten times the total number of RWC units. (17) AMC and Loews also agreed to install one RWC unit in a mid-sized auditorium in each new or renovated movie theater in the area covered by the litigation; if for any reason a theater with an RWC unit closes, the system is to be relocated to another theater in the area. (18) The parties agreed that "[i]f an alternative captioning system is developed in the future that is acceptable" to both parties, then the parties may modify the agreement accordingly. (19) Finally, the defendants compensated the plaintiffs for their legal fees in exchange for a release of liability. …


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