General Liability Alert: ADA Requirements Pertaining to Wall Space Adjacent to Interior Doors Clarified

In Kohler v. Bed Bath & Beyond (No. 12-56727, filed February 19, 2015) the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment in favor of a department store related to the necessary moving clearance for an interior restroom door pursuant to the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Plaintiff, Chris Kohler, is paraplegic and requires the use of a wheelchair to move in public. On two separate days in May 2011, Kohler used the restroom inside the Bed Bath & Beyond store in Riverside, California. Of relevance to the appeal, Kohler contends there was less than ten inches of strike-side wall space on the pull side of Bed Bath & Beyond’s restroom door which allegedly made it difficult for Mr. Kohler to pull open the restroom door by pushing off the strike-side wall with one hand while pulling the door handle with the other. He also contends there was less than three inches of strike-side wall or floor space on the push side of the door, making it difficult for Kohler to open the door from the push side. The door at issue did not have a latch which would stop the door from freely swinging on a hinge.

Kohler filed suit against Bed Bath & Beyond alleging the insufficient clearance space violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. Bed Bath & Beyond filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing the minimum strike-side clearance of twelve inches was not required because the door at issue did not have a latch. The District Court granted the motion and Kohler appealed.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. First, the Court concluded neither set of Guidelines require a minimum amount of strike-side wall length on the wall adjacent to the pull side of a door. In reaching this conclusion, the Court rejected Kohler’s theory that the Guidelines required more than eighteen inches of strike-side wall space by which to push off with one hand while pulling the door open with the other. Citing the thoroughness of the Guidelines, the Court noted “if the Guidelines contemplated requiring clear wall space to facilitate someone pushing off from the wall to open a door, they would have specified the texture of the wall and its structural strength.”

Second, the Court rejected Kohler’s argument claiming the door was in violation of the Guidelines due to a lack of at least twelve inches of strike-side clearance on the push side of the door. In rejecting the argument, the Court held such requirement is only applicable if the door has a latch. Since the door in issue had no latch, the door was in compliance.

The decision demonstrates federal courts are not willing to read into the ADA Guidelines, requirements that are not expressly identified. This rationale could conceivably be applied with regard to many other provisions of the ADA Guidelines, considering the comprehensive nature of the Guidelines in general.

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February 23, 2015