Interpreting "Place of Public Accommodation" under Title III of the ADA: A Technical Determination with Potentially Broad Civil Rights Implications

By Stowe, Matthew A. | Duke Law Journal, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Interpreting "Place of Public Accommodation" under Title III of the ADA: A Technical Determination with Potentially Broad Civil Rights Implications


Stowe, Matthew A., Duke Law Journal


INTRODUCTION

In response to its finding that approximately forty-three million Americans have one or more mental or physical disabilities, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).(1) Congress's purposes in enacting the ADA were "to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities"(2) and to "bring persons with disabilities into the economic and social mainstream of American life."(3) To those ends, the protections Congress afforded to the disabled under the ADA extend to numerous aspects of public life, including employment,(4) public services such as transportation,(5) and public accommodations.(6)

Title III of the ADA, the subchapter addressing public accommodations, sets forth a general prohibition on discrimination: "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."(7) Although the language of Title III defines place of "public accommodation"(8) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has supplemented and clarified that definition in applicable regulations,(9) courts have expressed substantial disagreement about its meaning.(10) The principal point of contention is whether the term "place of public accommodation" is narrowly limited to physical places or whether it encompasses something more.(11) Because Title III prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation, a narrow construction of this term limits the applicability of Title III and raises the question of whether such a narrow construction comports with the express purposes of the ADA.(12)

In Part I, this Note sets forth and briefly discusses the text of Title III, focusing on the statute's definition of "place of public accommodation." Part II extensively examines insurance-related cases interpreting "place of public accommodation" under Title III. Because most litigation regarding the meaning of "place of public accommodation" has arisen in the insurance context, it is unsurprising that most commentators have analyzed the meaning of the term in the context of Title III's applicability to insurance policies.(13) However, the debate over the meaning of Title III does not stop there, and if, as some suggest, insurance policies require special treatment under Title III,(14) the interpretation of "place of public accommodation" in other contexts should be further examined.(15) Indeed, Section II.D demonstrates that, although the insurance cases provide valuable analysis, a normative definition of "place of public accommodation" is better informed by examining cases beyond those involving insurance claims. Accordingly, Part III examines a line of cases determining whether membership organizations are "places of public accommodation" and thus subject to Title III's discrimination prohibition. Part IV uses a hypothetical example to argue that "place of public accommodation" under Title III should be interpreted broadly. It argues not only that "places of public accommodation" are not limited to physical places but also that the term should be interpreted to include membership organizations with no ties to physical facilities. Part V recognizes that this argument is in tension with analogous jurisprudence interpreting "place of public accommodation" under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) but proposes means of reconciling this Note's interpretation of "place of public accommodation" under Title III of the ADA with existing analogous CRA case law.

I. THE LANGUAGE OF TITLE III: TEXTUAL AMBIGUITY

Laden with ambiguous new legal terms,(16) the ADA has become a rich source of litigation in its short history. Rather than elucidating the meaning of Title III of the ADA, court decisions and agency regulations have heaped ambiguity upon ambiguity through inconsistent use of Title III's terms. …

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