A textbook example of how the ADA can work

Editors note: this is a repost from April 2011.  This past July marks the 26 Anniversary of the ADA.

By  David H. Kirkwood

When a class action suit is brought, all too often it is the start of a legal process that takes years to complete, costs millions of dollars to pursue, and brings little benefit to anyone other than the lawyers on both sides of the issue. So, when a case follows a very different path and is quickly and amicably resolved, there is reason to be happy. And, when that resolution promises to enable millions of deaf and hard-of-hearing people to enjoy first-run movies in the theater, that’s grounds for a full-fledged celebration.

The particular case I’m talking about was a suit brought in November 2010 by Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a non-profit legal center, against Cinemark, the nation’s third largest chain of movie theaters. DRA, which was representing the Association of Late-Deafened Adults (ALDA),  contended that by failing to provide closed-captioning equipment in its theaters in California, Cinemark was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The plaintiffs’ case was buttressed by a 2010 federal appeals court ruling in an Arizona case that closed captioning can be required at movie theaters under the ADA unless the theater owners can show it would cause financial hardship.

Instead of heading to trial, the lawyers on both sides decided to see if they could reach an out-of-court settlement. On April 26, ALDA and Cinemark announced that they had succeeded—and that both parties were happy with the outcome.

In a press release issued jointly by ALDA and Cinemark, John Waldo, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “We want to commend Cinemark for the prompt and cooperative way it resolved this case.” And Elizabeth Leonard, another attorney for the plaintiffs, noted that  Cinemark was “eager to sit down with us from the very beginning to talk about how to fix the problem out of court.”

Meanwhile, Michael Cavalier, general counsel and senior vice-president of Cinemark, said, “Cinemark was pleased to collaborate with ALDA.”

 

WHAT THE SETTLEMENT MEANS

Even before the parties resolved their difference, Cinemark had begun installing a new type of captioning technology in some of its theaters. About half the 64 Cinemarks in California are so equipped and, the company says, the rest will be by mid-2012.

CaptiView, the system selected by Cinemark, provides captioning to movie patrons who request it because their hearing loss makes it difficult or impossible to understand the soundtrack. The captions are clearly displayed on a bendable support arm that fits into the theater seat cup holder. This device operates on an internal wireless system and can be used in any seat in the theatre. The device comes with a privacy visor, which ensures that the captioning doesn’t affect those sitting next to or behind a seat where the system is in use.

Although the agreement applies only to California, it appears that Cinemark is expected to begin installing CaptiView systems in some of its hundreds of theaters and thousands of screens around the country. That will undoubtedly put pressure on other major movie chains to follow suit, not only to avoid being sued but also so that they won’t risk losing millions of hearing-impaired customers to the competition.

Not all  ADA cases go so smoothly. Sometimes plaintiffs may overreach, and there are situations in which accommodating a disability is simply not feasible. Also, defendants, whether companies or government bodies, are rarely as cooperative as Cinemark proved to be.

But let’s hope that this case, which ended in a win-win solution for the opposing parties, will help guide future efforts to secure for Americans with disabilities the equal access and opportunity that was the goal of the measure that President George H.W. Bush signed into law 21 years ago.

Feature image courtesy of Vimeo