Legal E-Bulletin - May 2004

Ninth Circuit Rules Movie Theatres Should Ensure Companion Seating

In a victory for moviegoers with disabilities, a federal court ruled against American Multi-Cinema (AMC) for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act in refusing to give priority for companion seats in a sold-out movie screening to the very people that they are designated for: companions of wheelchair users. Fortyune v. American Multi-Cinema Inc, __ F.3d __ (9th Cir. April 14, 2004).

Refusing to budge

Robin Fortyune uses a wheelchair and cannot attend a movie without his wife or another companion because of his disability. On opening weekend, they went to see Chicken Run, an animated feature about the adventures of an unproductive hen trying to avoid the slaughterhouse. The auditorium hosting the movie has only four seats available for companions to sit with wheelchair users. Arriving at the theatre twenty minutes early, the Fortyunes encountered a father and his son in two clearly marked companion seats. Both did not appear to have any disabilities nor were they accompanying a wheelchair user. Even though there were plenty of seats available at the time, the father refused to move when asked by the Fortyunes. By the time management got involved, the movie had almost started and all of the nearby seats had already filled. Despite the manager offering incentives such as free movie passes to the father, he still refused to move to another seat. Citing a written AMC policy,

“In situations in which the auditorium is legitimately ‘sold out,’ companions of guests using wheelchairs will be exposed to the same risk of less desirable seating as non-disabled couples who are sold ‘single’ seats. In a sold out situation, everyone shares the same risk of being unable to sit together.”

the manager informed the Fortyunes that he could not require the man to vacate the companion seats.

The trailers don’t start that early.

Due to AMC’s policy, the Fortyunes were prevented from seeing this movie. Despite this setback, the Fortyunes still regularly attend the movies. They now arrive forty-five minutes early to ensure access to companion seating. They haven’t experienced a similar incident since.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled that the AMC companion seating policy had a discriminatory effect in practice. Because this policy had still existed, the situation could recur and needed to be addressed.

Even if the Fortyunes were to arrive 45 minutes early to a sold-out screening, AMC’s policy does not guarantee that the companion will have a seat if someone is already sitting in the companion seats. There were only four companion seats in the auditorium compared to the numerous seating arrangements possible for people who do not use wheelchairs. Mr. Fortyune cannot attend a movie without an attendant. Having AMC modify its policy to ensure that Mr. Fortyune’s companion could be seated next to him is necessary so that he may be given an equal opportunity to attend and enjoy the movie.

Cell phones, screaming babies, fires, and people who just refuse to move because they could.

AMC must take steps to remove from a companion seat an individual who is not a companion to a wheelchair user. The Ninth Circuit noted that AMC has plenty of other rules where they can remove patrons from the theatre. For example, patrons can be removed if they are disruptive, violate smoking ordinances, or use cell phones. Moving patrons to further the purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires no more of AMC than what it already does for its other policies. AMC must adopt a policy to ensure that companion seating will be available to the people for whom they are designed as long as they arrive 10 minutes early even if the person occupying the seat refuses to move. Since this incident “rarely” happens as AMC claimed, the court reasoned that enforcement of this policy would not be overly burdensome.

The Ninth Circuit emphasized that this modified policy does not give preferential treatment to people with disabilities. Rather this reasonable modification allows wheelchair users that require a companion an equal opportunity to enjoy the movie. The number of companion seats that are available (and which are the only ones that companions of wheelchair users can use) is miniscule compared to the number of seating arrangements available for those who do not use wheelchairs.

ADAAG is not the end all and be all of the ADA’s public accommodation requirements

AMC tried to argue that they need not do anything more than comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act Architectural Guidelines (ADAAG) in order to satisfy the ADA. Since the ADAAG is silent on how companion seats are to be used, AMC tried to argue that it need not do anything. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument by pointing out that AMC’s obligations under the ADA extend beyond just complying with the design guidelines. This case was about AMC’s policies regarding the use of companion seating; not about how the seats were designed.

What implications does this case have?

This court case impacts the policies of any venue that utilizes companion seating. People with disabilities attend baseball games, concerts, etc and often attend these events with their friends and family. A movie theatre normally has a first-come-first-serve free-for-all seating arrangement. With venues that utilize assigned seating, giving priority for companion seating to the people for which they are designed requires even less of an administrative burden. This case reasserts the premise that public accommodations must ensure that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to attend and enjoy their services.

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This material is provided by the DBTAC National Network of ADA Centers. The DBTAC’s are funded by the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation and Research (NIDRR), the US Department of Education (Grant # H133A060085), to provide technical assistance, training, and materials on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The information, materials, and technical assistance provided are intended solely as information guidance and are neither a determination of your legal rights or responsibilities under the Act, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA.