In an award announced Thursday, a private arbitrator ordered Uber Technologies, Inc. to pay $1.1 million on account of more than a dozen instances in which its drivers denied service to Bay Area resident Lisa Irving, a blind rider who was accompanied by her guide dog, Bernie.
The arbitrator rejected Uber’s argument that it was not responsible for its drivers’ conduct because the drivers were — in Uber’s view — independent contractors, not employees. The arbitrator found that Uber was covered directly by the Americans with Disabilities Act, whether or not its drivers were technically independent contractors.
Complaints about denial of service to blind riders based on their service animals have been around since the early days of Uber’s ride-sharing service.
In 2014, the National Federation of the Blind and others brought a class action against Uber in federal court in San Jose targeting denial of service when blind riders were accompanied by service animals.
NFB and Uber settled the class action case in 2016.
In its press release to announce the class action settlement, NFB proclaimed it had reached a “Groundbreaking Settlement to End Discrimination Against Blind Uber Riders Who Use Guide Dogs.”
Under the class action settlement agreement, Uber was responsible for making sure its drivers knew that blind customers with guide dogs could not be denied service under the ADA even on the ground of allergies or religious objections.
The agreement required Uber to terminate drivers who knowingly refused to transport a rider because of their service animal.
In the years since 2016, it has become apparent that the settlement agreement did not resolve all such discrimination.
The service denials that Irving sued over occurred between October of 2016 and June of 2017, four of them after the settlement agreement had gone into effect.
Under the settlement, Uber was required to collect data on service animal denials of service and share it with plaintiffs’ counsel. While confidentiality provisions cover the public dissemination of much of the raw data, in court filings and communications with class members, some information has emerged.
Plaintiffs stated in a 2020 court filing reporting that “Since the Settlement term began in January 2017, Uber has reported that it has received over 21,000 complaints of service animal-related discrimination. Uber’s data shows no material decrease in the number of complaints during the Settlement term.”
Data presented to the court by plaintiffs showed that the percentage of trip requests that resulted in denials for riders with service animals averaged 13 percent over the period from May 2017 to December 2019. The filing noted that the numbers were based on self-reporting by riders and because the reporting process was allegedly “burdensome,” there was substantial under-reporting.
The settlement agreement had a 3 ½-year term but under certain conditions—including breach by Uber—it could be extended to five years.
In June of 2020, counsel for the plaintiffs sought an order extending the settlement agreement until Jan. 16, 2022. In its filing, plaintiff alleged “discrimination by Uber drivers against people who use Uber with their service animals remains pervasive.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael M. Cousins of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied the motion. The judge said that Uber hadn’t been shown to have violated the settlement agreement and plaintiff’s case was simply a complaint that that “service animal discrimination remains pervasive.” The judge said plaintiffs could file a new lawsuit if they believed there was a basis to do so.
Timothy Elder, a San Francisco lawyer who represented NFB in the class action said, “we are in conversation with Uber about the issue and what happens next.” He said that even with the reduced ridership during the pandemic “we do still hear a regular flow of people who are getting denied…. It is still a problem. It is a systemic problem.”
Irving’s suit for damages was not part of the class action and she sought recovery both under the ADA and the Unruh Act, California’s own version of the ADA. The Unruh Act provides damages beginning at $4,000 per violation and the amount can be increased if circumstances show aggravated severity.
The arbitrator considered 14 specific instances and ordered payment in all of them. The damages ranged from the statutory floor of $4,000 up to two for $75,000 apiece— one of those for a situation where the driver was verbally abusive and made Irving fear for her safety.
The total damages awarded to Irving was $324,000. In addition, the court awarded attorney’s fees in excess of $800,000. In a statement, Irving’s counsel stated, “We believe this may be the largest award ever issued to a single blind claimant for repeated violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act and California’s Unruh Act.”
Elder, who was not counsel in the Irving case but is familiar with the award, described the outcome as a “great result.”