Disability Civil Rights: It’s Just Common Sense

A recent lawsuit against Starbucks demonstrates a very important point about disability civil rights: most of the time it is just common sense.


Yes, there are technical requirements for physical access under the Americans with Disabilities Act. There is, in fact, an actual building code for accessible design. But the ADA’s building code is different than any other on the planet because it is also a civil rights standard. Thus, a business not only must have accessible facilities, it must make sure that persons with disabilities can use them.


In the Starbucks case, a San Jose coffee shop had fully compliant transaction counters and paths of travel.  In other words, it would have passed any building code inspection. There was 36 inches of path to the counter and to the restroom and there was a lowered section of transaction counter. But . . . . this is where common sense kicks in. The Starbucks placed merchandise display stands in the center of the path of travel and placed its chairs and tables in a way that partially blocked the path of travel to the restroom. Additionally, there were a variety of display items on the transaction counter, crowding it so that it no longer had 36 inches of clear width.


The plaintiff had to ask people to move out of his way due to the bottleneck caused by the obstructions. He had to have a chair moved to simply get to the restroom. And the transaction itself was difficult and awkward because of the crowded counter. In all, it was a frustrating—even embarrassing—episode for the plaintiff. Starbucks argued to the court that “there was no ADA violation because Plaintiff testified that he reached the transaction counter and was able to buy a coffee.” The court rejected the argument and held: “This argument ignores the law on harm in access barrier cases: the ADA does not require a plaintiff to have been denied access altogether” . . .  it is a violation if it simply causes difficulty or frustration.


The plaintiff won the case. The issue was so clear to the court that the plaintiff was awarded $4,000 without having to go to trial. The judge disposed of the case by motion.


This is all too common. It is not enough that a business has technically compliant facilities. How the business uses the facilities matters. So many businesses stock their stores full of merchandise, and stick advertisements and knick-knacks in all available space. This might be a great marketing ploy. It might be a way to maximize floor and counters space. But it is often illegal. The desire to display as much merchandise and wares as possible cannot trump the important civil rights that persons with disabilities have with regard to movement in and around businesses.


A lawsuit creates a valuable ripple effect. It is very unlikely that this San Jose Starbucks will again ignore where they place their tables, chairs and display racks. Without ever knowing the folks he has helped, it is unquestionable that the plaintiff in the Starbucks case has created a real benefit for the thousands of disabled customers who will buy coffee at that location in the future days and years.


If you have experienced violations like the plaintiff in the Starbucks case, please don’t hesitate to contact the Center for Disability Access. We have handled hundreds of cases just like this and are ready and willing to take your case.

2 thoughts on “Disability Civil Rights: It’s Just Common Sense

    • Mark Potter

      Hi Judith, Please let us know if it happens to you or a person you know with a disability and we’ll pursue the claim. If claims are not pursued, nothing will change. Every disability access case that is prosecuted has an unseen ripple effect of compliance. Our firm is a resource for change that is free of charge to the disabled community.

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