Class action alleges Hotels.com discriminates against persons with mobility disabilities

Earlier this year Judith Smith, Bonnie Lewkowicz and Axis Dance Company filed a class action complaint in a California state court against the owner of Hotels.com. The plaintiffs allege “ongoing discrimination against persons with mobility disabilities who desire to, but cannot, use hotels.com’s worldwide reservation network to make reservations for hotel rooms.” The putative class includes “all individuals in California who are disabled because of a mobility impairment and therefore require an accessible room when they travel, and who have been and continue to be deterred from using hotels.com to make room reservations for accommodations in California because of hotels.com’s refusal to guarantee reservations for accessible hotel rooms.”

Basically plaintiffs allege that while persons with mobility disabilities can request an accessible room via hotels.com, they cannot search the website for an accessible room or be guaranteed that such a room will be available. Instead plaintiffs would have to wait until they arrive and check-in to learn whether a suitable room is an option. Because the plaintiffs cannot stay in a hotel room lacking certain accessibility features, they allege that they cannot use hotels.com. Plaintiffs claim that the same limitations exist when calling hotels.com’s toll-free telephone number.

The complaint alleges two state law causes of action – violations of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and Unfair Competition Law – and only asks for injunctive and declaratory relief (plaintiffs likely were determined to keep this case in state court).

Count I alleges that hotels.com’s “failure to allow Plaintiffs and the Class to guarantee accessible hotel rooms violates the Unruh Act by, among other things, denying Plaintiffs and the Class physical accommodations; preventing Plaintiffs and the Class from taking advantage of the reservation services hotels.com provides; and preventing Plaintiffs and the Class from benefiting from hotels.com’s guaranteed low prices.”

Count II alleges unlawful business practices (refers to Count I and alleged violations of California’s Disabled Persons Act) and unfair and deceptive business practices (claims that hotels.com’s website and other advertising is misleading to consumers). On the second point, plaintiffs’ allege that “[t]he website represents that consumers can find all the information they need and guarantee a stay at a hotel by using hotels.com’s services, but those promises do not hold true for travelers who require accessible accommodations.”

In response, Hotels.com has filed a general denial and stated that it expects to seek summary judgment and/or summary adjudication. It also will oppose the plaintiffs’ anticipated motion for class certification.

I’m curious, if someone were to call one of the hotels listed on hotels.com, could he or she get a guaranteed reservation for a room accessible to a person with a mobility disability? If anybody knows and/or tries, please drop me a line. Regardless, plaintiffs allege that they believe that hotels.com “has the ability to provide Plaintiffs and the Class with the search features and the ability to secure guaranteed reservations that they need.” I guess they hedged for a reason, because, according to plaintiffs, among the questions of law and fact common to all class members is “whether hotels.com has the ability to provide the services Plaintiffs need.” I’d certainly be surprised by a finding of liability here if the underlying hotels are unable/unwilling/not obligated to facilitate the features demanded here by plaintiffs. But I have a feeling it may not come to that. Perhaps with the recent certification of two classes in NFB v. Target in mind, last week the parties agreed to mediate their dispute. The mediation is presently scheduled for February 6, 2008 in San Francisco.

Smith v. Hotels.com L.P., California Superior Court, Alameda County, Case No. RG07327029.

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One thought on “Class action alleges Hotels.com discriminates against persons with mobility disabilities

  1. […] In May of 2007, a California class action lawsuit was filed against Hotels.com for discrimination against disabled and elderly travelers looking to search and book rooms that were able to accommodate them. Due to having disabilities they would need to have access to rooms that they could reach, meaning that the hotel had to have cuts in curbs, ramps, and stair less entry ways. Doorways would have to be large enough for a wheelchair to enter as well. Once inside accommodations should include reachable televisions and shelves, grab bars and raised toilets in bathrooms, rooms with either no or low carpet, and spacious, so that a wheelchair could be easily maneuvered. “I want to be able to reserve hotel accommodations online at hotels.com just like anyone else,” says plaintiff Bonnie Lewkowicz. “It would be unwise and potentially dangerous for me to rely on a hotel reservation service that does not guarantee the hotel room I am booking is accessible to someone in a wheelchair. Accessibility isn’t a preference for me – it’s a necessity.” International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet- ICDRI. (n.d.) Pg. 1. Hotels.com seemed to have little to no remorse about their potential disabled customers being unable to use their website. “In response, Hotels.com has filed a general denial and stated that it expects to seek summary judgment and/or summary adjudication. It also will oppose the plaintiffs’ anticipated motion for class certification.” Michael Erdman. (2007). Pg. 1. Research showed that Hotels.com brought in $2.3 billion in 2006, a year prior to the lawsuit, and studies also showed that more than 21 million disabled people traveled at least once in the previous two years. Around 16 million people stayed in hotels. On a business stand point it really didn’t make sense for Hotels.com to not want to accommodate disabled travelers, and also to express good business ethics by standing by its word to guarantee reserved rooms at the lowest prices, for everyone. “The failure to guarantee accessible hotel rooms means that a person in a wheelchair who pays for a room through hotels.com literally might not be able to enter the room after they arrive at the hotel,” said Kevin Knestrick, attorney with DRA, a non-profit law center based in Berkeley, Calif., that specializes in high-impact lawsuits on behalf of people with disabilities. “Hotels.com is excluding people with mobility disabilities from its services. This is hostility to disabled and elderly people, not hospitality.” International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet- ICDRI. (n.d.) Pg. 1. Judith Smith and Bonnie Lewkowicz, of Axis Dance Company, the ones who filed the class action complaint against the owner of Hotels.com weren’t out for blood, they didn’t even request for damages, simply the ability to use the site so that they could save time and energy planning their trip. They simply wanted the ability to find a fairly priced room that they were going to be able to use when they got there. “Count I alleges that hotels.com’s ‘failure to allow Plaintiffs and the Class to guarantee accessible hotel rooms violates the Unruh Act by, among other things, denying Plaintiffs and the Class physical accommodations; preventing Plaintiffs and the Class from taking advantage of the reservation services hotels.com provides; and preventing Plaintiffs and the Class from benefiting from hotels.com’s guaranteed low prices.’Count II alleges unlawful business practices (refers to Count I and alleged violations of California’s Disabled Persons Act) and unfair and deceptive business practices (claims that hotels.com’s website and other advertising is misleading to consumers). On the second point, plaintiffs’ allege that ‘[t]he website represents that consumers can find all the information they need and guarantee a stay at a hotel by using hotels.com’s services, but those promises do not hold true for travelers who require accessible accommodations.’” Michael Erdman. (2007). Pg. 1. A mediation between the two was scheduled for February 6, 2008, in San Francisco. It resulted in a victory for all disabled travelers desiring to use Expedia Inc. and its subsidiary Hotels.com, two of the world’s largest online travel agencies. “As the result of a class action lawsuit brought by Chavez & Gertler, Public Justice, and Disability Rights Advocates, disabled travelers who use those websites can now search for lodgings that have the accommodations they need – such as accessible entry ways, roll-in showers, and telephone equipment for the deaf. The two travel companies have also for the first time adopted procedures enabling consumers to request and reserve hotel rooms with the access features they require. Our lawsuit, filed on behalf of AXIS Dance Company and dancers Bonnie Lewkowicz and Judith Smith, both wheelchair users, alleged that the travel company’s failure to provide such services deprived individuals with disabilities of equal access to travel discounts and packages available to non-disabled people, and thus violated California’s anti-discrimination laws. Expedia reports that since the changes were implemented in August 2009, it has published accessibility options for more than 15,000 hotels, and the Expedia.com call center has received 500 requests per week utilizing the new web features.” Chavez & Gertler LLP. (n.d.). Pg. 1. It seemed that now Hotels.com was also happy with the outcome stating, “We are pleased with the solution we developed. Our customer service and technology teams are working carefully to implement changes to our sites, which will enable travelers to search and book properties which meet their accessibility requirements.” Henry K. Lee. (2009). Pg. 1. I personally feel that this was a great outcome, considering that when I first started reading about it I had never heard about it before, and it wasn’t sounding like it was going to end well for the plaintiffs. I had to read about this case on several websites; however I only referenced the best pages I could find in my paper. There was very little comment or defense from Hotels.com, I believe they just wanted to brush it under the rug initially. I am especially glad that the plaintiffs pursued this case, and that they won, and that the affects of the changes are currently in place, because in recent years my father has become dependent on a wheelchair, through forces that are not his fault and out of his hands, because there is no cure. I don’t feel that anybody should have to feel discriminated against because they rely on some sort of aid to get by. I remember how he use to be when I was younger, and I sometimes still get emotion even reading and writing papers concerning this topic. This was a true victory.References:https://onlineliabilityblog.com/2007/11/20/class-action-alleges-hotelscom-discriminates-against-persohttp://www.ibls.com/internet_law_news_portal_view.aspx?id=1837&s=latestnewshttp://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Hotels-com-to-improve-access-for-the-disabled-3174701.phphttp://www.chavezgertler.com/?recent_successes&id=11 […]

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