‘Excessive slopes’ in Steak ’n Shake parking lots fuels ADA complaint

July 30, 2018

A pair of disability rights advocates who had trouble maneuvering their wheelchairs through the parking lots at two Steak ’n Shake restaurants in Pennsylvania will be able to pursue their claims that the Indianapolis-based restaurant chain is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

However, the appellate court stopped short of certifying the plaintiffs’ proposed class, finding the potential group was “extraordinarily broad.”

Christopher Mielo and Sarah Heinzl assert in their complaint that they have had difficulty ambulating the “excessive slopes” in the parking spaces and access aisles at the Steak ’n Shake restaurants in East Munhall and Pleasant Hills, Pennsylvania. In filing their lawsuit, Mielo and Heinzl are pushing for the court to require the restaurant to not only adopt centralized corporate policies to ensure the approximately 417 locations at issue in the complaint are ADA compliant, but to also actively seek out and correct access violations.

The 3rd Circuit characterized the plaintiffs’ argument as a “novel interpretation of the ADA.” However, noting it could not rule on the merits of the case because the litigation is still in the early stages, the appellate panel found the plaintiffs have standing to present their case in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“Here, although Plaintiffs’ theory may not ultimately prove successful on the merits, Plaintiffs present a colorable argument that the ADA requires Steak ‘n Shake to adopt new policies requiring them to actively seek out and correct access violations,” Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote for the court. “Given the constraints on our ability to subject Plaintiffs’ claims to additional scrutiny at this point, we are satisfied that they have alleged a non-frivolous claim that they suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest.”

In the second part of its ruling, the 3rd Circuit reversed the district court’s certification of the class under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a). The appellate court found the plaintiffs failed to meet the numerosity and commonality requirements.

Namely, the plaintiffs did not offer any evidence that would enable the court to determine the portion of disabled individual who have patronized a Steak ’n Shake and experienced an ADA violation. Also, the collective claims are so widely divergent that they would be better pursued either on an individual basis or by a class of similarly-aggrieved patrons, the court found.

“Although all class members might allege a violation of the ADA – even the very same provision of the ADA – this only establishes that putative class members ‘merely’ allege to ‘have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law,’” Smith wrote, citing Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes 564 U.S. 338 (2011). “For purposes of satisfying Rule 23(a)(2), that is not enough, because, like Title VII in Dukes, the ADA can be violated in many different ways.

The case, Christopher Mielo; Sarah Heinzl v. Steak ’n Shake Operations, Inc., 17-2678, was remanded to the district court to reconsider if a class should be certified.


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