Lawsuit Claims Uber Drivers Unprepared for Disabled Passengers in Violation of ADA
The mobile app service that allows users to request a driver on their phone when they need a ride has an extremely successful, but troubled start up company. While the service operates much like a taxi company, the company allows drivers to work any hours they want and use their personal vehicles. While the company has been so widely adopted that, in the last year, the word “Uber” has replaced “taxi” in the vernacular of many people. The startup has also faced a swath of lawsuits involving everything from failed criminal background checks to failure to abide state safety regulations to failure to appropriately classify its employees. Now, the company also faces lawsuits from disabled Americans who claim that the company has done little, if anything, to train their drivers in the regulations around the now 25-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act.
Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that companies offer access to their services by building ramps, keeping elevators in working order, and, in the case of taxi services, offer some vehicles in the fleet that are large enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Taxi companies may not discriminate against disabled people with service animals, who most noticeably help blind riders, but can also be soothing companions to people with mental disabilities such as anxiety or mood disorders.
Uber has long claimed that it is not a taxi service, but a mobile app that connects personal vehicles with individual riders. The sticky issue for most of the lawsuits, however, involves payment to drivers – Uber has drivers file as 1099 or Independent Contract Employees, which means they should have some freedom over their working hours and responsibilities. However, Uber drivers have filed lawsuits because they believe the company keeps them as independent contractors to avoid insurance issues, which can range from vehicle insurance coverage to workers compensation. Uber also, in some lawsuits, has failed to screen employees properly – numerous acts of violence or sexual assault have occurred when passengers attack Uber drivers, who cannot then file for workers comp, or when Uber drivers attack passengers, who have little legal recourse against the company due to the 1099 classification.
The latest slew of lawsuits exposes Uber’s failure to follow the regulations around the Americans with Disabilities Act. The company has not provided enough, if any, driver training in the federal law, meaning that drivers have refused rides to passengers with wheelchairs, service animals, or other disabilities. Some reports note that Uber drivers have even shoved service animals in the trunks of vehicles, and left blind passengers at the mercy of their drivers. Even when some drivers find that they can, in fact, fit manual wheelchairs in their vehicles, they have reportedly berated their passengers, which borders on verbal abuse. And yet, because Uber repeatedly insists that it is a mobile app company and not a taxi service, disabled passengers find that legally, they have little recourse against the company.
“It would have to modify the Uber App, modify its policies and procedures, and provide wheelchair accessible vehicles in numerous cities,” Uber said in a court filing in October.
Some Uber reps argue that the company is making some headway in the discrimination charges against it. “We’re a very young company but we’re already making, I think, a significant difference in terms of more mobility options for people with disabilities,” said David Plouffe, a former campaign manager and White House adviser for President Barack Obama who joined Uber in August 2014. “The ability for someone to press a button, or a family member to press a button, to get them a ride is a huge deal.”
“We’ve got a lot of drivers, so unfortunately the law of mathematics is that occasionally we may have somebody who doesn’t understand for whatever reason,” Plouffe said. “Sometimes we’ve seen instances where people say, ‘well I’ve got leather seats and I don’t want a dog on them.’ That’s just not okay.”
“Of all those things that have changed because of the ADA, the transportation industry has been the slowest to catch on,” said US Representative Tony Coelho (D., Calif.).
“The training required for these very simple services is not extensive,” said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund who uses a wheelchair. “We really want to be just like everybody else, and in fact we are just like everyone else. Riding with a service animal or bringing a wheelchair with you is not challenging for drivers. It’s really simple.”
“The big problem is that until the courts settle whether Uber is a software company or transportation company the disability community will just have to be patient and try to work with Uber, not against them,” said Eric Lipp, executive director of the Open Doors Organization. Until the issue is finally settled in a legally-binding way, Uber can continue to allow its “fleet” of drivers to discriminate against disabled passengers.