Theaters must make room for companions of disabled

A federal appeals court upheld a ruling Tuesday against a Southern California movie theater that refused to guarantee seating for the companions of disabled patrons during sold-out screenings.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that American Multi-Cinema Inc. may have discriminated against a quadriplegic who couldn't attend a showing of the movie "Chicken Run" after theater management refused to force a non-disabled patron to vacate a seat reserved for the companions of people in wheelchairs.

The federal Americans With Disabilities Act "requires that AMC take steps to remove from a companion seat any person who is not the companion of a wheelchair-bound bound patron and who refuses to vacate that seat despite being asked to do so," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the panel.

The case involved the experience of Robin Fortyune, a quadriplegic from Torrance, Calif., who frequents an AMC movie theater near his home with his wife's assistance. On June 25, 2000, the couple got to the theater 20 minutes early and found a man and his son occupying two seats set aside for companions of customers who use wheelchairs.

Fortyune's wife asked the pair to move to vacant seats elsewhere in the theater, but the man refused. By the time a manager arrived and repeated the request, all the nearby seats were filled and the man again refused to make way for the Fortyunes. The manager, citing a written AMC policy that said companions of the disabled "will be exposed to the same risk of less desirable seating" during sold-out shows, told the couple he couldn't require the man to relocate.

In 2002, a District Court judge found that Robin Fortyune was entitled to sue AMC and ordered the theater to amend its policy "to ensure that a companion of a wheelchair bound patrol be given priority in the use of companion seats. AMC appealed.

Fortyune's lawyer, Russell C. Handy of the Center for Disability Access, said the 9th Circuit's finding that theaters have an obligation to "to forcibly evict the non-disabled" could have positive implications for disabled baseball fans, wheelchair-reliant opera lovers and others who require special handicapped seating.

"It really affirms a legal principal that says you can't just build your facility in compliance with access codes and then wash your hands of the ADA," Handy said. "The court said that is not enough, you have to look at how the facility is being used."

Attorneys for AMC could not be reached for comment. In their briefs to the court, they argued that Fortyune lacked the legal standing to sue because his experience was an isolated incident unlikely to recur and that requiring theaters to eject non-disabled customers was a "draconian" remedy.

The court disagreed, however, saying the chain's written policy and Fortyune's status as a frequent movie-goer made it likely he could face similar disappointments in the future. The judges also noted that movie theaters don't flinch at sanctioning customers who use cell phones or get rowdy during screenings.

"Fortyune's requested modification requires no less and no more of AMC," Wardlaw wrote.

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