The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a district court order dismissing a public accommodation claim under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) as moot because the defendant remedied the alleged violations. Hillesheim v. Holiday Stationstores, Inc., 953 F.3d 1059 (8th Cir. 2020). The decision in Hillesheim is important because it validates a defense for businesses faced with these types of claims which are often asserted by plaintiff firms seeking attorney’s fees.
Hillesheim v. Holiday Stationstores
The plaintiff in Hillesheim was paralyzed and used a wheelchair for mobility. He filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the owner of a Holiday service station and convenience store under Title III of the ADA seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. He alleged that he tried to visit a Holiday store on several occasions but was unable to do so because of the lack of accessible parking. Specifically, he claimed that the access aisle shared by the accessible parking spaces contained a slope of greater than 1:48; that no accessible routes connected the Holiday store exit and the accessible parking spaces; and that the ramp from the parking lot to the store was in front of a parking spot where a car could park and block the ramp.
Holiday remedied the three violations within two months of being sued. Holiday then moved for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff’s claims were moot. The district court granted the motion dismissing the case without prejudice for lack of justiciable case or controversy. Hilesheim v. Holiday Stationstores, Inc., 2018 WL 10560507 (D. Minn. Dec. 3, 2018). Plaintiff argued that he should have been allowed to recover “nominal damages” but the district court rejected this argument, stating firmly that injunctive relief was the sole private remedy under the law and that the caselaw relied upon by plaintiff was inapposite. Plaintiff therefore did not recover attorneys’ fees or nominal damages. Plaintiff appealed and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.
Why this Decision is Important
As noted, the sole remedy available for a plaintiff under Title III of the ADA is injunctive relief. If a plaintiff obtains injunctive relief, however, he or she may also seek attorneys’ fees. Plaintiff firms practicing in this area often sue main street businesses seeking a quick settlement of attorneys’ fees in exchange for a commitment to remediation. These cases are sometimes referred to as “drive by lawsuits.” In order to bolster their claim for damages and fees, many plaintiff attorneys in Minnesota had been asserting a companion state law claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act seeking actual damages for violation of their client’s civil rights. The Minnesota Legislature, however, largely put a stop to that practice when it passed a law in 2016 requiring plaintiffs to send a letter to any non-compliant business before they filed suit.
The tactics of plaintiff attorneys in this state have therefore had to adapt. The problem plaintiffs face in seeking an injunction is that if the harm is fixed by the time of the motion for an injunction, the motion will be denied as moot, or the entire case will be dismissed upon a motion brought by the defendant, as in Hillesheim. And, because the plaintiff is not the prevailing party in that scenario, no attorney’s fees will be available. Recently plaintiffs have attempted to avoid dismissal by including a count of “declaratory judgment” seeking a court order that the conditions were non-compliant as of the time of the lawsuit was field. The 8th Circuit’s written decision in Hillesheim indicates that the plaintiff’s amended complaint in that case included a claim for “declaratory judgment and an injunction.” Neither the district court nor the appellate court analyzed the declaratory judgement claim independently, however. Both courts took the position that the entire case had to be dismissed as moot due to the lack of a case or controversy.
Many defendants still choose to settle for a nominal sum rather than spend a greater sum of money on attorneys’ fees to obtain dismissal on summary judgment. If more businesses defended these claims, however, the financial motive for plaintiff firms would be diminished. If your business has been sued for non-compliance under the ADA, contact the business and litigation attorneys at Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A.
About the Author:
V. John Ella has represented dozens of clients in ADA Title III public accommodation lawsuits. He can be reached at 612.455.6237 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. is a Minnesota business and employment law firm located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.