Supreme Court Asks Government If Vending Machines Must Comply With ADA Rules; Blind Patron Appeals Coke Suit

Posted On: 3/20/2017

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TAGS: vending, ADA compliant vending machines, ADA vending machine compliance, U.S. Supreme Court, Americans With Disabilities Act, blind man sues Coca-Cola, Noel J. Francisco, Emmett Magee, Emmett Magee v. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA Inc.

The U.S. Supreme Court is asking the Trump administration to consider whether a beverage vending machine is a "place of public accommodation" under the Americans With Disabilities Act, in the case of a blind man who sued Coca-Cola because he was unable to buy drinks from machines at a hospital and bus stop.

In an order released on Feb. 27, the court asked U.S. Acting Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco to provide the government's standpoint on whether Title III of the ADA applies only to physical spaces that people can enter. The order came after the plaintiff, Emmett Magee, filed a petition for the Supreme Court to grant certiorari to resolve what his lawyers say is a split among the federal circuits.

In Emmett Magee v. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA Inc., Magee said that he was unable to make a purchase from glassfront Coca-Cola vending machines at a hospital and bus station because he could not see the items inside in order to select them for purchase.

"These computerized machines accept payment from debit and credit cards, have wireless capability, can interact with nearby smartphones, and feature touchscreens and LCD displays," Magee said. "Notwithstanding their technological sophistication, respondent's current machines provide no way for a blind person to determine which products the machine contains or for what price."

Magee argued that the soda giant could bring its machines into ADA compliance by retrofitting them with an audio interface and providing tactile features on the keyboard, or creating a smartphone app for the visually impaired.

Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, a division of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., won the case at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The Fifth Circuit dismissed the case, saying that the ADA only applies to companies that own or lease a place of public accommodation and Coke didn't own the hospital or the bus station where its machines were located.

Magee's appeal poses the question to government: Does the ADA apply to websites, vending machines and other avenues for consumer sales beyond brick-and-mortar establishments?

The First, Second and Seventh Circuits have held the ADA includes nontraditional physical establishments. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the Ninth, Third and Sixth Circuits that the ADA applies only to traditional physical spaces.

"Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of disability," Magee said. "In this case, the court of appeals held that public accommodations are limited to physical spaces that people can enter. In so doing, the Fifth Circuit acknowledged departure from the precedents of the First, Second and Seventh Circuits and stated that it was following the Third, Sixth and Ninth Circuits."

ADA requirements for the vending industry, designating "reach ranges" only, went into effect on March 15, 2012. Ranges can be no higher than 48" and no lower than 15"; side-reach and other accessibility requirements were also revised. Recommended reading:

Vending Industry Must Comply With New ADA Rules Beginning March 15

Dept. Of Justice Official Clarifies Effect Of New ADA Rules On Vending Firms And Equipment