Can Rideshare Drivers Discriminate Against Disabled Passengers?
Talia Lubin has Type-1 diabetes. She depends on a service dog to keep her alive. Her diabetic alert dog is trained to detect the odor associated with chemical changes produced by elevated or depressed blood sugar levels. The dog then alerts the owner, who can respond by taking insulin or glucose before the change in sugar levels becomes life threatening.
Talia lives in San Francisco. Astra, her service dog, wears a vest that is marked with the words “Service Dog” and “Medical Alert.”
On multiple occasions, Talia has used her Lyft app to obtain a ride, only to have the driver cancel the ride as soon as the driver sees Astra. Talia carries a small tarp that she places under Astra, who sits at her feet during the ride. Despite her assurances that drivers do not need to worry about cleaning dog hair from their cars, Lyft drivers have repeatedly refused to transport her.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires places of public accommodation to accept service dogs, even if they generally have a “no pets” policy. Places of public accommodation include businesses that serve the public. Restaurants, hotels, and stores are examples of places of public accommodation.
An entity that charges money for transportation provides a public accommodation and is subject to the ADA. Rideshare drivers for Lyft, Uber, and other rideshare companies, like taxis and buses, must accommodate service dogs.
Accommodation requirements apply to other disabilities, as well. Uber drivers, for example, have been accused of driving away rather than picking up passengers in a wheelchair.
Roadblocks to ADA Enforcement
Enforcing the ADA against a rideshare driver can be difficult. Rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber take the position that their drivers are independent contractors, not employees. Rideshare companies argue that they have no responsibility if drivers break the law.
The companies have had mixed success in making that argument, although the business model has evolved over the years to make it more clear that drivers are not employees. Still, claims by Uber and Lyft that they are in the business of technology, not transportation, seem silly when the point of Uber and Lyft is to provide transportation to app users.
Holding drivers accountable is problematic when drivers cancel a call and drive away. Drivers may fabricate excuses for not picking up the passenger that are unrelated to the service dog. Even when a strong case can be made, rideshare drivers do not usually have significant assets. Trying to collect a judgment from a rideshare driver might turn out to be a waste of time.
Lyft claims that it suspended the driver who refused to let Astra into his car. Lyft points to a clause in its agreement with drivers that requires them to accommodate service animals.
Yet Lyft responded to class action lawsuits filed by customers in wheelchairs by arguing that it has no legal obligation to police the unlawful behavior of drivers who leave wheelchair occupants stranded. Lyft also argued that it has no obligation to assure that any of its drivers operate wheelchair-accessible vehicles. In Lyft’s view, it has no obligation at all to comply with the ADA.
Uber advises drivers that they have a legal obligation to carry passengers with service dogs and claims that the company will deactivate the account of a “driver-partner” who knowingly refuses to carry a service dog, but only if Uber has received more than one customer complaint that Uber deems to be “plausible.”
In large cities, however, there are so many Uber drivers that a customer with a service dog might be denied a ride by dozens of different drivers, none of whom will face deactivation unless Uber receives multiple complaints about the same driver. Even then, there is no guarantee Uber will take action against the driver.
A woman in Texas sued Uber after she was denied transportation about 25 times because of her service dog. It isn’t practical to sue 25 different drivers, so the woman asked Uber to take action. She alleges that her complaints were met by the assurance that Uber would not assign the same driver to the woman again. Reducing the number of available drivers to transport a disabled passenger hardly seems like an effective solution to the problem.
The Need for Legislative Solutions
Uber responded to the Texas woman’s lawsuit by enforcing an arbitration clause that is buried in the service agreement that accompanies the Uber app. The fact that customers almost never read that agreement does not dissuade courts from enforcing it. Uber customers are often forced to bring claims in the secretive and business-friendly environs of an arbitration proceeding
The only effective solution to the problem is likely to be legislation that holds ridesharing companies accountable for their drivers’ ADA violations (just as a taxi company would be) and to prohibit mandatory arbitration of those violations. Since that kind of legislation has no chance of advancing in a Senate that has no interest in regulating businesses, disabled passengers will — at least for the present — continue to face significant obstacles to ADA enforcement when rideshare drivers refuse to transport their service dogs.