Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals No. 06-13791, 2007 WL 3087215 October 24, 2007 Keywords:
compensatory damages, employment, legal concepts, Rehabilitation Act, service animal, service animals, state & local government, voluntary cessation
Facts of the Case
Ms. Annette Sheely is a legally blind woman who requires the assistance of her service animal, an 80-pound guide dog. On June 7, 2005 Ms. Sheely took her minor son for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) appointment at a diagnosis imaging facility owned and operated by MRI Radiology Network (hereinafter “MRN”). At check-in, an MRN receptionist asked if Ms. Sheely’s dog was being used as a service animal, to which Ms. Sheely replied in the affirmative. No further mention was made of the dog at that time and Ms. Sheely and her son sat in MRN’s main waiting area.
When Ms. Sheely’s son was called to the MRI suite, he asked that his mother accompany him. An MRI suite is divided into two rooms by a glass partition; the patient and metal-sensitive materials are located on one side of the partition, while the technician performs the scan remotely from the other side of the glass, in an area known as the “holding room”. Parents who wish to accompany their minor children during the MRI scans are allowed to stand in the holding room. Nevertheless, when Ms. Sheely rose to accompany her son, she was told that she would not be permitted in the holding room on account of MRN’s no-animal policy.
The receptionist explained that MRN’s policy prohibiting animals beyond the waiting room existed for the animal’s safety, for fear that metal in the animal’s harness might harm the MRI, and because of space restrictions in the holding room. According to the receptionist, this policy was unwritten and created by Mr. Steinberg, MRN’s owner. When asked if her service dog would be permitted beyond the waiting area if she, Ms. Sheely, were the patient, the receptionist noted that MRN’s no-animal policy made no exceptions for service animals. The receptionist indicated that Ms. Sheely would be treated by MRN only if she had someone with her to watch the dog in the waiting area.
Ms. Sheely’s son proceeded to the MRI suite alone, while Ms. Sheely called Mr. Stannard, MRN’s Director of Scheduling. Mr. Stannard told Ms. Sheely that she was entitled, like all parents, to accompany her minor child to the holding room and with her guide dog. Mr. Stannard then called MRN and relayed this information to the receptionist. The receptionist, nonetheless, refused Ms. Sheely’s entrance with her service animal.
On July 27, 2005 Ms. Shelly sued MRN, alleging that its actions violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Florida Civil Rights Act. Ms. Sheely asked the Court to find that MRN’s no-animal policy violated these statutes, and ban the facility from acting on this policy in the future. In addition, Ms. Sheely asked that she be compensated for the emotional distress she experienced as a result of MRN’s treatment of her. On April 20, 2006, after five months of mediation resulted in a stalemate, MRN moved for summary judgment against Ms. Sheely (i.e., to dismiss the case). Two days earlier, MRN announced it had implemented a new, written Service Animal Policy, which MRN argued made Ms. Sheely’s claims moot.
MRN’s new Service Animal Policy instructed employees to determine: first, whether the animal in question is a service animal; and second, whether the animal presents a “threat” to health and safety or disrupts any of MRN’s services. If the animal is determined a service animal that poses no threats, it is permitted to accompany its owner throughout the facility. MRN argued that because it voluntarily stopped the behavior Ms. Sheely challenged, the claims she had asserted were based on a policy that no longer existed and therefore were not ripe for review by the Courts. The federal district court agreed with MRN and granted its motion for summary judgment. Ms. Sheely appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Issues of the Case
- Whether MRN’s implementation of a new Service Animal Policy made Ms. Sheely’s claims moot.
- If not moot, what remedies are available to her under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act in light of MRN’s policy change.
Arguments & Analysis
1. The Court of Appeals stated: “the doctrine of voluntary cessation provides an important exception to the general rule that a case is mooted by the end of the offending behavior.”
In situations when behavior is voluntarily stopped, a court must also consider (1) “whether the challenged conduct was isolated and unintentional” (rather than continuing and deliberate); (2) whether MRN’s motivation to stop the offending conduct was a “genuine change of heart or timed to anticipate suit;” and (3) whether by stopping the conduct MRN acknowledged liability.
2. The Court found that MRN’s prior no-animal policy was a continuous and deliberate behavior that had been enforced on many occasions.
Additionally, the motivation to stop this behavior was timed to avoid Ms. Sheely’s suit (i.e., during mediation stalemate and only two days before motioning for summary judgment) and did not reflect a genuine change of heart. Lastly, MRN did not acknowledge liability when it voluntarily changed its no-animal policy; rather MRN continued to assert the validity of its actions towards Ms. Sheely. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that MRN’s claim the offending behavior had ceased and would not be revived, was not enough to make its voluntary cessation legitimate and Ms. Sheely’s claim moot. Thus, the Court remanded Ms. Sheely’s claim back to the federal district court to determine whether MRN’s no-animal policy was in fact a violation of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.
3. The Court then turned to consider the type of remedy Ms. Shelly may be entitled to in light of MRN’s recent change in policy.
MRN’s change in policy meant that declarative or injunctive relief under the ADA was no longer appropriate, because MRN already had done what this form of relief would provide (i.e., MRN discontinued its no-animal policy). Instead, the Court of Appeals applied the presumption that a court may award “any available remedy to make good the wrong done.” Here, the Court of Appeals found emotional damages were available and appropriate to make Ms. Sheely “whole” under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The Court of Appeals held that Ms. Sheely’s claims were not made moot by MRN�s new Service Animal Policy. On remand, the district court will determine if MRN’s no-animal policy was in fact a violation of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act and whether Ms. Sheely is entitled to compensatory damages under the Rehabilitation Act for emotional distress resulting from this violation.
Policy & Practice
When determining whether voluntary cessation of conduct that violates the law is sufficient to make a violation claim moot, the Eleventh Circuit considers several factors: “(1) whether the challenged conduct was isolated or unintentional, as opposed to a continuing and deliberate practice; (2) whether the defendant’s cessation of the offending conduct was motivated by a genuine change of heart or timed to anticipate suit; and (3) whether, in ceasing the conduct, the defendant has acknowledged liability.” The court record shows that MRI successfully accommodated a service animal the day following its change in policy. Would this be sufficient to demonstrate a genuine change of heart?
In our legal system, those who violate the ADA may be forced to stop discriminatory practices through the use of court-ordered injunctions. This is a prospective remedy that seeks to end all future discrimination of this form. Additionally, victims of discrimination may be entitled to retrospective remedies, such as compensation for emotional distress experienced as a result of past discrimination.
On remand the district court must determine whether Ms. Sheely is entitled to compensatory damages to “make her whole” under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This determination places a high burden on Ms. Sheely to show that the type and duration of emotional distress suffered was severe enough to warrant compensation. Should Ms. Sheely be limited to compensatory damages only if she makes a showing of severe emotional distress?
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These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.