Can Landlords Limit Liability for ADA Violations by Removing Structural Barriers?
Workers hired by the landlord of a medical office building place a 55-gallon barrel that’s been cut in half to serve as a planter on the access ramp leading to the only public entrance of the building, leaving just 30 inches on either side for entrants to squeeze through. In addition to making it hard for mobility-impaired persons to maneuver on the ramp, the planter is placed at a point where the ramp is elevated several inches above the level of the parking lot. A 54-year-old paraplegic patient complains to the tenant about the planter and warns that somebody with balance issues is going to get hurt if it isn’t moved. But nothing is done. And the patient’s words prove prophetic when he himself falls off the ramp at the point of elevation and suffers severe injuries.
The patient sues the landlord for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He doesn’t want money damages, just a declaratory judgment—that is, a ruling affirming that the landlord committed disability discrimination—and an injunction forcing the landlord to take actions to prevent future discrimination. While the case is pending, the landlord removes the planter and applies asphalt to make the previously elevated ramp level with the parking lot.
The medical office lease makes the landlord responsible for maintaining the exterior of the property, including the sidewalks and parking lots, and the tenant responsible for maintaining its own offices.
Does the patient have a valid ADA injunction claim against the landlord?
A. Yes, because the landlord didn’t provide him a means of accessible entry to the building
B. Yes, because the landlord was responsible for maintaining the exterior of the building
C. No, because it was the tenant who received but failed to act on the patient’s warnings
D. No, because the landlord remedied the violation by making structural repairs to eliminate the barrier
D. There’s no basis for an injunction because the barrier to accessibility has been structurally removed.
This is a tricky scenario that raises a subtle but very important point about a landlord’s accessibility responsibilities under the ADA, the federal law requiring landlords and other owners and operators of places of public accommodations to make those accommodations accessible to persons with disabilities. Specifically, the ADA regulations require that the route of access be at least 36 inches in width. The placement of the planter leaving only 30 inches to either side of the access ramp to the building’s sole entrance ran afoul of ADA accessibility regulations. So, the landlord was clearly guilty of an ADA violation.
So, why isn’t Choice A correct? Answer: The question this quiz poses is not whether the landlord violated the ADA, but whether the patient was entitled to an injunction. In other words, the patient wasn’t seeking damages or other redress for past violations but relief to prevent future discrimination. And that leads us to the two key points we want you to take away from this exercise:
- A landlord or other defendant in a claim for declaratory or injunctive relief under the ADA can render the case moot by voluntary removal of the alleged barrier.
- To win on mootness, the landlord must also show that there’s “no reasonable expectation” that the alleged violation will recur.
The landlord in this case, which is based on an actual ruling from New York, Compo v. River Real Estate Dev., LLC (2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 195964, 2020 WL 6196138) was able to meet these conditions, and not simply because it removed the planter from the ramp. As courts have made clear in numerous cases, removing a physical barrier isn’t enough if there’s nothing to prevent the landlord from putting it back. The key is that the landlord also made permanent, structural changes to level the ramp by adding asphalt to provide a smooth transition between the parking lot and wheelchair ramp and expand the “accessible route” beyond the 36 inches required by the ADA. So, D is the right answer.
WHY WRONG ANSWERS ARE WRONG
A is wrong because while the landlord did violate the ADA by placing the planter on the ramp, structurally eliminating the barrier rendered the case moot and took away the patient’s right to an injunction.
B is wrong because while the landlord is responsible for the violation, the question isn’t about the past violation but the availability of an injunction to prevent future violations.
C is wrong because, as a general rule, tenants aren’t liable for ADA violations in the building exterior, parking lot, common areas, or other locations for which the lease gives the landlord clear control and responsibility for maintenance.