The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently narrowed a trial court victory for the Seattle Mariners in a case involving the adequacy of sightlines for handicapped seating at T-Mobile Park. In a Sept. 3 opinion that other teams and facilities will likely study, Judge Danielle Forrest expressed uncertainty over whether two sections at the Mariners’ home park comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Washington’s Law Against Discrimination. The case has been remanded to the trial court for further deliberations.
In 2018, Clark Landis and three other baseball fans who use wheelchairs sued a group that included the Mariners and ballpark owner Washington State MLB Stadium Public Facilities District. The complaint contends that “non-ambulatory spectators do not have adequate sightlines over standing spectators when seated in the wheelchair accessible seating” in certain parts of the ballpark. “When spectators stand,” the complaint insists, “plaintiffs’ sight lines are obscured. This is most likely to occur at exciting moments of the game.”
The complaint further asserts that T-Mobile Park neither sufficiently disperses wheelchair-accessible seating nor offers comparable prices for such seats. Yet on behalf of herself and two other Ninth Circuit judges, Judge Forrest, like trial Judge Barbara Jacobs Rothstein, rejected those claims. T-Mobile Park, the judges found, provides accessible seating at different viewing angles (and price levels) and along every path of egress. The ADA also doesn’t mandate that all levels of ticket prices be proportionally represented for wheelchair-accessible seats. Further, sightlines of the scoreboard were deemed sufficient.
The remaining claim—allegedly inadequate sightlines of the playing field—remains in play.
Designed in 1996, T-Mobile Park (formerly known as Safeco Field) features wheelchair accessible seating on each of its four seating levels that slope toward the field. Like other stadiums, T-Mobile Park must comply with the ADA as a place of public accommodation. To that end, the ballpark must prove readily accessible to individuals with disabilities. It is barred from providing less than, as Judge Forrest stressed, “anything less” than “full and equal enjoyment.”
In court documents, attorneys for Seattle insist that T-Mobile Park fully complies with the ADA. “Fans using wheelchairs,” the attorneys wrote in a legal brief last year, “are able to purchase seats with a wide variety of perspectives and sightlines.” The attorneys add that there is no accepted methodology for assessing sightlines, with case law providing conflicting guidance. In that same vein, fans, whether seated or standing, are of different heights, which makes it challenging to determine “comparable” sightlines. “There is no data for eye height of persons seated in wheelchairs, nor average head height, eye height or shoulder height of standing spectators,” Seattle’s brief emphasizes. “This matters because different variables will yield different results.”
Per U.S. Department of Justice regulations, buildings must adhere to “minimum standards” as set by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, more colloquially known as the Access Board. The Access Board is an independent agency of the federal government that crafts criteria for buildings to comply with the ADA.
During the 1990s, the Access Board published guidelines instructing that wheelchair areas must be an “integral part of any fixed plan” and those areas should “provide people with physical disabilities a choice of admission prices and lines of sight comparable to those for members of the general public.”
The Board also published a guidance that applied to new stadiums. “Wheelchair seating locations,” the guidance clarified, “must provide lines of sight comparable to those provided to other spectators.” In terms of sporting events where spectators tend to stand, “all or substantially all of the wheelchair seating locations must provide a line of sight over standing spectators . . . a person using a wheelchair [must be able to] see the playing surface between the heads and over the shoulders of the persons standing in the row immediately in front and over the heads of the persons standing two rows in front.”
The guidance contained the following visual to illuminate sightline requirements:
During the trial, each side relied on accessibility experts who offered contradictory assertions. Seattle’s expert concluded that spectators using wheelchairs at T-Mobile Park could see over those standing in front. The plaintiffs’ expert disagreed and maintained there are sightline discrepancies for spectators in wheelchairs. In one section of T-Mobile Park, the expert concluded, “spectators using wheelchairs could see 8% of the field while spectators not using wheelchairs could see 41% of the field; when viewing the infield, spectators using wheelchairs could see 31% of the field while spectators not using wheelchairs could see 100% of the field.”
Seattle prevailed in a bench trial. Judge Rothstein found the views for fans in wheelchairs to be “comparable.” She observed that “several of the locations have 100% visibility of the field” and in other sections the percentage was close to 100%.
The Ninth Circuit concluded that Judge Rothstein erred in her reasoning. Two requirements must be met to determine “comparable” sightlines. A person using a wheelchair must be able to see: (1) between the heads and over the shoulders of fans standing in the next row, and (2) over the heads of fans standing two rows ahead.
Judge Rothstein’s analysis only pertained to the first requirement, leaving uncertainty as to comparable sightlines to see over those standing two rows ahead. Judge Forrest cautioned that the Ninth Circuit “express[es] no opinion” on whether T-Mobile Park meets the second requirement, only that the district court needs to make that determination. The court will do so in future hearings.
“Everyone deserves an accessible and inclusive experience,” attorney Conrad Reynoldson, who represents the fans suing Seattle, expressed to Sportico in a statement. “Baseball fans with disabilities simply wish to have a comparable view of the game when they go out to enjoy America’s pastime. We are hopeful that this decision will lead to positive changes going forward.” The Mariners declined to comment as the matter is a pending litigation.
While civil litigations often settle, a settlement that addresses the fans’ grievance over sightlines seems unlikely. A person familiar with MLB ballpark designs tells Sportico that to provide the desired sightline, seats in T-Mobile Park would need to be blown out, among other major renovations. Given that Seattle previously won at the district court, it might feel confident that it can prevail again.