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Campbell v. Universal City Dev. Partners, Ltd: ADA Preempts State Law


The Eleventh Circuit, in Campbell v. Universal City Dev. Partners, Ltd., No. 22-10646 (11th Cir. Jul. 7, 2023), recently addressed the interplay between Florida law and the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) and concluded that compliance with state law does not excuse discrimination under the ADA.

In the summer of 2019, Dylan Campbell was told he was unfit to ride the Krakatua Aqua Coaster at Universal’s Volcano Bay waterpark because he did not have two hands. Universal allowed only patrons with two hands to ride the Aqua Coaster. Campbell, who was born with only one hand, sued Universal for violating the ADA. Universal argued that it did not violate the ADA because Florida regulations required it to prohibit Campbell from riding. The district court agreed and entered summary judgment for Universal. On July 7, 2023, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated and remanded, holding that compliance with state law does not relieve Universal of its obligations under the ADA.

Title III of the ADA prohibits entities that provide a public accommodation1 from imposing eligibility criteria that preclude individuals with a disability from enjoying the goods or services of that accommodation. A public accommodation may, however, impose such eligibility criteria if it can show that criteria “to be necessary for the provision of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations being offered.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(i). After a plaintiff in an eligibility criteria case demonstrates that (1) he or she has a disability, (2) the defendant provides a public accommodation, and (3) the defendant uses eligibility criteria to screen out individuals with disabilities, Title III places the burden on provider of the public accommodation to demonstrate that any eligibility criteria are “necessary.”

Here, the Eleventh Circuit found that Universal did not meet its burden; Universal failed to demonstrate that excluding patrons who did not have two hands is “necessary.” The ADA does not define “necessary,” but that definition is key to the court’s holding. According to the court, “necessary” includes, but is not limited to, criteria required for legitimate safety reasons.2

Universal argued three additional justifications in the definition of “necessary”:

(1) compliance with state law,

(2) following manufacturers’ recommendations, and

(3) administrative feasibility and uniformity. The court disagreed with all three justifications.

Compliance with Florida law, according to the court, does not automatically deem eligibility criteria “necessary.” Florida regulations require Universal to follow the ride manufacturer’s ridership eligibility criteria, which bar riders who do not have two hands from riding the Aqua Coaster. Universal argued that it could impose these discriminatory criteria because Florida law requires it – even though imposing discriminatory criteria violates the ADA. In response, the Eleventh Circuit determined that the ADA preempts any state law that provides lesser protections to disabled individuals than those protections provided by the ADA. In such a case, the ADA’s greater protection must be enforced. Then the court explained that Universal would not be subject to civil or criminal penalties if it violated Florida law while abiding by the ADA because when federal and state law conflict, federal law must be followed. Providers of public accommodations that impose discriminatory criteria based of state law, therefore, are not excused from ADA liability.

Companies offering public accommodations that follow manufacturer-imposed safety requirements are also not necessarily excused from ADA liability, according to the court. The fact that a manufacturer has experience and therefore a comparative advantage in identifying safety risks does not make complying with its recommendations “necessary.” Instead, manufacturer-imposed safety requirements are “necessary” only to the extent that they relate to actual risks to the health and safety of guests. Those requirements, on their own, are not “necessary” eligibility criteria.

Finally, the ADA recognizes that reasonable accommodations are not required for individuals with disabilities if they would place an undue burden on the provider of the public accommodations. 42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(iii). The court was not convinced that Universal faced such an undue burden. Universal had argued that it was unfeasible, from an administrative standpoint, to allow individuals with limb differences to ride the Aqua Coaster. This would require Universal to determine, on a case-by-case basis, which variations of limb differences would impact an individual’s safety on the ride and thus unduly burden Universal. Because Universal failed to show that it would be unsafe for an individual with any type of limb difference to ride the Aqua Coaster, Universal was not in a position to determine which limb differences would impact safety and therefore, was not faced with an undue burden.

This decision is particularly important for almost all businesses. Restaurants, grocery and retail stores, gyms, movie theaters, and hotels are all considered places of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA. This means that a company cannot discriminate against disabled individuals and use state law compliance as a shield against Title III ADA liability. For example, many states have laws that are only applicable to certain industries. If compliance with these laws requires discriminating against disabled individuals by refusing access to a public accommodation, Campbell makes it clear that providers of these public accommodations are still not excused from liability.

1 Public accommodations are businesses, included nonprofits and private entities, which are open to the public and/or provide goods and services to the public. Examples include hotels, restaurants, theaters, stadiums, museums, stores, offices, private schools, and amusement parks. 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7).

2 Neither party argued over whether prohibiting riders without two hands is “necessary” for safety reasons. According to the court, the district court may consider such a determination on remand.