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Geneva Lema v. Courtyard Marriott Merced

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. Comfort Inn, Merced (1:10cv-00362-SMS). The Court 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 no material factual dispute exists and that Plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment, an injunction requiring correction of inaccessible conditions at the Courtyard Marriott Merced, statutory damages, and attorney's fees and costs.

I. Procedural History

On June 22, 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.); 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 July 29, 2010.

Earlier, on February 27, 2010, Plaintiff had filed a complaint in a companion case: Lema v. Comfort Inn, Merced, 1:10cv-00362-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.

On February 3, 2012, Defendants moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that Plaintiff failed to allege that she had visited the Courtyard and encountered at least one architectural feature that denied her full and equal access to the facilities because of her particular disability. On March 27, 2012, the Court dismissed the complaint with leave to amend, observing that although Plaintiff had testified to the disputed matter in her deposition, the complaint did not allege facts that she had visited the Courtyard and encountered barriers resulting from her particular disability .

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. Plaintiff documented her stays at the Courtyard in 2008 and 2009 with copies of invoices and receipts. 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 are more manageable than those she encountered at the Comfort Inn.

Nonetheless, the Courtyard presents multiple barriers to accessibility. On her first visit to the Courtyard, Plaintiff was unable to use the only available disabled parking space because it lacked sufficient room to extend the ramp from her van. The lobby counter was too tall for Plaintiff and the hotel clerks to see each other. She could not reach the desk top to sign registration materials. The door to Plaintiff's guestroom was too heavy for her to push open and, once opened, swung back and locked too quickly. The tables in the lobby were too low to accommodate Plaintiff when she was seated in her wheelchair. When she used the public bathroom near the lobby, she was unable to reach the toilet seat cover dispenser, which was located above the back of the toilet.

Defendants are the individuals and entities that own the hotel. 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. 80-1 at 1.

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 exercise room, although it still remained obscured by equipment. The landing for the laundry room entrance door was obstructed by a laundry basket. Atwood also inspected the hotel on September 30, 2012. Although he had attempted to reserve an accessible guestroom for that visit, he was advised that all accessible rooms were booked or unavailable. His inspection revealed that six guestrooms, including the five accessible rooms, were being demolished. Atwood annotated the Danz report to reflect conditions observed on September 30, 2012.

III. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment should be granted "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." F.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); Fortyune v. American Multi-Cinema, Inc., 364 F.3d 1075, 1080 (9th Cir. 2004). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of establishing the basis of its motion and of identifying the portions of the declarations, pleadings, and discovery that demonstrate absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Soremekun v. Thrifty Payless, Inc., 509 F.3d 978, 984 (9th Cir. 2007). A fact is material if it could affect the outcome of the suit under applicable law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986); Thrifty Oil Co. v. Bank of America Nat'l Trust & Savings Ass'n, 322 F.3d 1039, 1046 (9th Cir. 2003). A dispute about a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Long v. County of Los Angeles, 442 F.3d 1178, 1185 (9th Cir. 2006).

When the moving party will have the burden of proof on an issue at trial, it must demonstrate that no reasonable trier of fact could find other than for the moving party. Soremekun, 509 F.3d at 984. When the non-moving party will have the burden of proof on an issue at trial, the movant may prevail by presenting evidence that negates an essential element of the non-moving party's claim or merely by pointing out that no evidence supports an essential element of the non-moving party's claim. See Soremekun, 509 F.3d at 984; Nissan Fire and Marine Ins. Co. v. Fritz Cos., Inc., 210 F.3d 1099, 1105-06 (9th Cir. 2000). If a moving party fails to carry ...

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