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Geneva Lema v. Comfort Inn

April 2, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sandra M. Snyder United States Magistrate Judge


Both parties have moved for summary judgment in this case and its companion case, Lema v. Courtyard Marriott Merced (1:10cv-01131-SMS). The Court's having previously ordered the measurements determined by Plaintiff's expert to be established and accurate, Defendants do not challenge the existence of the barriers that Plaintiff has alleged and do not contend that any proposed remediation is not readily achievable. They oppose summary judgment solely on the basis that Plaintiff lacks standing, supporting their contentions with a misinterpretation of Plaintiff's deposition. As a result, the Court finds that no material factual dispute exists and that Plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment, an injunction requiring correction of inaccessible conditions at the Comfort Inn, statutory damages, and attorney's fees and costs.

I. Procedural History

On February 27, 2010, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendants seeking injunctive relief and damages for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.) (ADA); California state disabilities rights laws (California Civil Code §§ 54, 54.1, and 55); and the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Plaintiff sought injunctive and declaratory relief, and treble damages. Defendants answered on April 8, 2010.

On June 22, 2010, Plaintiff had filed a complaint in a companion case: Lema v. Courtyard Marriott Merced, 1:10cv-01131-SMS. Because the defendants in the two cases are substantially the same persons and entities, discovery and most other proceedings were consolidated to promote economy.

Following multiple substitutions of counsel in the spring and summer of 2011, Defendants failed to provide timely expert discovery, resulting in the Court's striking Defendants' designation of its expert witness on January 19, 2012. The Court declared the hotel measurements, as determined by Plaintiff's expert Karl Danz, established and accurate for purposes of the continuing litigation. Doc. 49.

On February 3, 2012, Defendants moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that Plaintiff lacked standing for failure to allege the specific ADA deficiencies that deterred her from staying at the Comfort Inn in the two years preceding her filing the complaint, her intent to return to the Comfort Inn, and the relationship of her disability to the alleged barriers. On March 27, 2012, the Court dismissed the complaint with leave to amend, observing that although Plaintiff had testified to the disputed matters in her deposition, the complaint did not allege facts supporting a conclusion that she had visited the Comfort Inn or intended to return. The Court rejected Defendants' contention that the action was barred by the statute of limitations, citing Pickern v. Holiday Quality Foods, Inc., 293 F.3d 1133, 1138 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1030 (2002). (In Pickern, the Ninth Circuit held that the statute of limitations did not bar an ADA action by a plaintiff who had not visited the subject premises within the limitations period if she had actual knowledge of continuing violations that precluded her access.)

After Plaintiff filed her first amended complaint on April 25, 2012, Defendants moved to strike portions of it. The Court denied the motion, noting that Defendants' failure to support their motion revealed their continuing strategy of delay. The Court warned Defendants that additional motions presented for improper purposes, such as harassment, delay, and inflation of litigation costs, would subject them sanctions under F.R.Civ.P. 11.

On the same day, Defendants also moved for a more definite statement, contending that they were unable to connect Plaintiff's alleged disability to the barriers that she alleged that she encountered at the Comfort Inn. The Court denied Defendant's motion, noting that first amended complaint was sufficient to apprise Defendants of the claims against them and that the type of detailed information Defendants sought was more appropriately secured in the course of discovery.

On July 2, 2012, Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction. The Court struck the motion and directed Defendants to answer the complaint within ten days. Defendants answered on July 13, 2012.

On August 2, 2012, Defendants filed another motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Because Defendants filed this motion to dismiss after filing their answer, the Court ordered that the motion would be deemed a summary judgment motion to be adjudicated according to procedures applicable to motions brought under Rule 56. Plaintiff filed a consolidated motion for summary judgment on August 3, 2012. To promote clarity of understanding and ease of execution, the Court will issue a separate order for each case.

II. Applicable Facts

Plaintiff, Reverend Geneva Lema, who is 74 years old, is the founder and pastor of City Restoration Church in Fairfield, California. For over thirty years, she has also maintained a traveling ministry, speaking throughout California and the United States. Her speaking engagements typically include ten to twelve churches in the greater Merced area, including two annual appearances at Liberty Church in Atwater. When Plaintiff prepared her declaration in August 2012, she anticipated staying at the Courtyard in October 2012, when she would again be speaking at Liberty Church.

Plaintiff has a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta.*fn1 She is four feet tall when standing and 39 inches tall when seated in her wheelchair, limiting the height to which she can reach.

Until 2006, Plaintiff was relatively mobile on crutches. Triple spiral fractures in both legs in 2006 and subsequent injuries increased her pain, introduced a need for prescription pain killers, diminished her endurance, and increased her instability. Since 2006, Plaintiff limits her use of crutches to walking around in her own home and preaching. In her declaration (Doc. 78-3) and deposition, Plaintiff explained that because of her familiarity with her home, including furniture placement and available handholds, using crutches there was convenient and safe. She opined that standing during her presentations was necessary to project "a pastoral message of strength." Otherwise, due to her fragility and instability, she always uses her motorized wheelchair when she is inside an unfamiliar building or outside. The physical stress of traveling, especially extended auto travel, causes debilitating physical stress that quickly exhausts her.

When Plaintiff travels to Merced for a speaking engagement, she would prefer to stay at a lower priced hotel, such as the Comfort Inn, since the cost of lodging Plaintiff and her ministry team is either paid from Plaintiff's honorarium or by the sponsoring church, which often cannot afford expensive lodging. Plaintiff had stayed at the Comfort Inn for many years, dating back to its tenure as a Holiday Inn. In her deposition, she recounted the embarrassment she experienced in 2006 when she was unable to enter the restroom in her "accessible" room at the Comfort Inn and had to check out in the middle of the night and move to a more accessible room in Turlock. When Plaintiff rented a suite at the Comfort Inn in 2007, using the inaccessible bathroom required her to disrobe outside the room and use the toilet without closing the door, within hearing of those with whom she was meeting in the adjacent room.

When the Courtyard opened in 2008, Plaintiff elected to stay there since its barriers were more manageable than those she encountered at the Comfort Inn. Because the Courtyard is more expensive than the Comfort Inn, when Plaintiff preaches in the Merced area, she no longer brings her ministry team.

At the Comfort Inn, inaccessibility began upon arrival. Reaching the disabled parking spaces required driving under areas with limited high-top clearance, a problem for a van equipped for use by a person who is wheelchair dependent. The limited number of disabled parking spaces were improperly and hazardously configured, and required Plaintiff to travel behind numerous parked vehicles, sometimes while negotiating steep slopes. The main entrance was not accessible by wheelchair, requiring Plaintiff to follow a circuitous route and enter through a rear door. Once inside, cluttered hallways impeded her travel to the front lobby. Similarly, the lobby, crowded with furniture, lacked sufficiently wide paths of travel to permit Plaintiff to use it. The registration desk was too high for hotel staff to notice Plaintiff and for Plaintiff to sign registration and payment documents.

The Comfort Inn's pool and sauna areas were not accessible by wheelchair; the pool lift was inoperable. Tables in the lobby and pool were too low for Plaintiff to use them in her wheelchair. Service and beverage counters in the breakfast area were too high to reach and lacked clear space to manipulate a wheelchair. Public restrooms lacked turning space, strike edge clearance, approach and knee space, appropriate reach ranges, grab bars, and space to transfer from a wheelchair to the toilet. The business center desks were too low for Plaintiff to use in a wheelchair; the business machines were out of reach and obstructed.

Defendants are the individuals and entities that own the hotel. Defendants admit that the Comfort Inn, located at 730 Motel Drive, Merced, California, was constructed in 1993. In his October 10, 2012 declaration, Defendant Edwin Anthony stated, "All of the ADA barriers alleged in Plaintiff's complaints in both these cases have been removed." Doc. 82-1 at 1.

According to Defendant Kasturi Lal, Defendants operated the Comfort Inn as a Holiday Inn under a ten-year license from 1997 to 2007. When the license with Holiday Inn expired, Defendants elected to secure a Comfort Inn franchise, making changes to conform to the franchise requirements, including upgrading counter tops to granite and "freshening" guest rooms.

In his expert report, Plaintiff's accessibility consultant Karl Danz set forth measurements and observations of those aspects of the facilities that were not accessible to Plaintiff, and opined that neither hotel complied with the ADA or Title 24 code requirements that were in effect on their respective construction dates. As previously noted, the Court has already deemed Danz's measurements and observations established and accurate. Defendants do not contend that removing the barriers identified by Plaintiff and Danz is not readily achievable.

On July 31, 2012, Plaintiff's accessibility expert Barry Atwood reinspected the Courtyard*fn2 and observed that the conditions that Danz identified were still present except for correction of the security latch on the door and insulation of the drain pipe under the sink in room 104; resolution of the three parking issues; correction of the height and clear space required for the poolside emergency telephone; lowering the controls for the spa; correcting the secondary pool exit door to open to 90 degrees; and lowering of the emergency telephone in the ...

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