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   ARTICLE   |   From Scotsman Guide Commercial Edition   |   February 2003

Theater Wheelchair Seating Ruling Could Directly Impact the Real Estate Industry

In a recent court decision, United States v. AMC Entertainment (AMC), a Los Angeles judge ruled that AMC’s wheelchair seating at stadium-style theaters violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).   

Many existing theaters will have to be revamped if this decision is affirmed on appeal.  This decision is retroactive to all AMC theaters.

Retail projects with stadium-style theaters usually have restaurants and other tenants that benefit from the pedestrian traffic generated by the theaters.  Landlords and theater owners thus each have an incentive to minimize any theater downtime from retrofitting theaters.

In 1995, AMC Entertainment, Inc. began to open stadium-style theater complexes, in which the majority of the seats are located on tiered rows, as opposed to a gradually sloping floor.  The purpose of this design is to provide customers with enhanced, unobstructed lines of sight to the screen.  In front of the tiered seating, approximately 2-4 rows of seats are placed on a sloped floor closest to the screen.  Wheelchair and companion seating in AMC’s theaters is often located solely in this front section.  Only 23.8% of AMC’s stadium-style theater auditoriums nationwide have wheelchair seating located in the tiered section.  The United States Department of Justice filed suit against

AMC claiming that the placement of this seating denies persons with disabilities equal access, benefits and services in violation of Title III of the ADA.  

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the United States, relying on the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, which requires that wheelchair areas “be provided so as to provide people with …lines of sight comparable to those for the general public.”  The court rejected AMC’s argument that “line of sight” refers only to possible obstructions, concluding that this language refers not only to possible obstructions, but also to viewing angles.   Because viewing angles from the sloped-floor portion of the theater are far inferior to the viewing angles from the tiered rows, the court held that AMC’s designs of stadium-style theaters that place wheelchair seating solely on the sloped-floor portion of the theater fail to provide “lines of sight comparable to those for members of the general public,” and consequently, violate the ADA.  Therefore, the judge rejected AMC’s contention that it merely had to provide an unobstructed view.

Some theater owners previously thought that the ADA only required that wheelchairs be no closer than the fourth row.  These owners installed three rows of non-stadium seating with the wheelchairs immediately behind them.  Landlords should examine their theater leases to confirm that the tenant is obligated to bear the expense of the renovation.

This case is an example of self-inflicted wounds:  The Judge quoted an internal AMC memorandum, that “the accessible seating that we currently offer in stadium houses is an insult to the disabled.”  Further, the judge found that one position taken by AMC’s counsel was “intellectually dishonest and insulting to this Court.”  In addition, the judge identified another position as “yet another example of a deliberate misrepresentation by AMC’s counsel to this Court.”

If the case is upheld on appeal to the 9th Circuit (covering nine Western states), it will be inconsistent with the appellate decision of another Circuit.  If the Justice Department can obtain jurisdiction in the 9th Circuit, theater operators could be required to comply nationwide.


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