OAKLAND, Calif. -- The settlement of a lawsuit against Oakland-based Safeway concerning accommodations for disabled shoppers has put the industry on alert that the federal government is serious about enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act. A Justice Department official told SN last week the department is reviewing several complaints filed by supermarket customers alleging ADA violations. The official declined to name targeted operators, or to specify what actions might be pending against them.
But, it was said, the Safeway case will act as a roadmap in settling other cases. As reported earlier, Safeway reached a settlement last month considered to be notable for the number of issues it addressed. Safeway agreed to modify its Washington, D.C.,
stores that presented handicapped access problems and agreed to survey its 835 stores in 16 states to ensure they meet ADA standards. Joan Magagna, deputy chief of the Disability Rights Section of the Justice Department, told SN, "I think businesses ought to take a look at what they've done to ensure they are in compliance. "If a company took a look at its facilities two years ago and said, 'based on my resources I am in compliance,' it ought to look again and make another assessment [because] it might now have the resources it didn't have two years ago." Edie Clark, director of media relations for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, said that the results of this case shed light on how the government views the ADA's Title 3 statutes, which concern public accommodations and directly affect supermarkets.
"The industry continues to move ahead in this area, but it needed the Safeway case to see how the government is interpreting the public accommodations portion of the law," Clark said. While the Safeway case has apparently raised the industry's awareness of ADA, most retailers contacted by SN last week said they believe they're already in compliance with ADA requirements concerning public accommodations for handicapped customers.
Safeway's settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice resulted from a lawsuit filed against the chain in April 1994 by two shoppers who were unable to enter a Safeway store in Washington, D.C., because of barriers presented by a shopping cart corral. In settling the case, Safeway agreed to correct the problem by removing or modifying the corrals and to pay attorney fees of $95,000 (part of which will be donated to the Disabilities Rights Council of Greater Washington); the chain also agreed to the 16-state survey of stores to ensure they meet ADA standards.
What made the settlement significant, Matt Nosenchuk, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told SN, was the comprehensiveness of the settlement terms. "It addresses a whole range of accessibility issues at supermarkets, including aisle width, the number of accessible parking spaces, access from the parking lot to the store, the height of point-of-sale machines and having a handicapped-friendly checkstand always open," he said.
Debra Lambert, corporate public affairs director for Safeway, said the chain will begin surveying its stores -- using teams of Safeway personnel -- sometime in the fall and expects the survey process to take at least six months to complete. "We're not sure what the results will be because we haven't finalized the survey questions," she told SN, "but we anticipate that our stores built since 1992 will check out OK because the architects have expertise in ADA requirements." The specific problem raised in Washington does not affect other Safeway stores in the United States, Lambert noted, since the chain's Eastern division is the only one where the design on the cart corrals created problems. She said a similar access problem in Berkeley, Calif., had been corrected a couple of years ago. Cart corrals are found mostly in East Coast stores, not markets in other parts of the United States, she added. Super Fresh Markets, the Philadelphia-based division of A&P, Montvale, N.J., has also faced a challenge under the ADA involving cart-corral barriers at two stores that allegedly restricted wheelchair access. According to Thomas Earle, an attorney with the Disabilities Law Project in Philadelphia, Super Fresh agreed in a settlement last August to install new wheelchair ramps, to design accessibility aisles leading from the handicapped parking area to the ramp, to install closed-circuit surveillance cameras, and to replace padlocked gates on the cart corral with electronically locking, self-closing gates with a buzzer-speaker system to allow employees inside the store to control the opening and closing of the gates.
The FMI offers a variety of materials that it developed under a technical assistance grant from the Justice Department to help retailers comply with Title 3 statutes (concerning public accommodations) under ADA, Clark said. Those materials include a manual outlining requirements and obligations under Title 3, a package for training and educating employees about ADA, and a starter kit to help retailers determine if their stores are in compliance. A number of chains contacted by SN said they are in compliance with Title 3, and some said they even exceeded the requirements.