Speciner v. Nationsbank, N.A., No. MJG-99-CV-1782.

Decision Date15 March 2002
Docket NumberNo. MJG-99-CV-1782.
PartiesJacqueline SPECINER, et al., Plaintiffs, v. NATIONSBANK, N.A., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Nicole Schultheis, Schultheis & Walton, PA, Baltimore, MD, for Plaintiffs.

Kathleen Pontone, Lisa F. Orenstein, Miles & Stockbridge, PC, Baltimore, MD, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

GARBIS, District Judge.

This case was tried before the Court without a jury. The Court has heard the evidence, reviewed the exhibits, considered the materials submitted by the parties, and had the benefit of the arguments of counsel. The Court now issues this Memorandum of Decision as its findings of fact and conclusions of law in compliance with Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

I. INTRODUCTION

The instant case presents issues of great significance to the parties and the public. Accordingly, an introduction to the case prior to the statement of legal rationale is appropriate.

There are no villains before the Court. Plaintiffs seek to obtain unassisted access to a public facility for persons who use wheelchairs for mobility. Of course, wheelchair users are simply people who happen to have limited mobility due to a misfortune. Therefore, in a real sense, Plaintiffs are acting on behalf of all since anyone may become a wheelchair user. Defendants seek to preserve a beautiful and historically significant structure while providing wheelchair users the full range of banking services.

As stated in a Native American proverb, one cannot truly judge another one has walked a mile in the other's moccasins. In the instant case, the significance of the barriers to wheelchair access to the public banking hall at issue can best, and perhaps only, be appreciated, from the vantage of a wheelchair.

Persons who can walk can enter the building at issue, ascend a beautiful flight of marble steps, and proceed into a 1920's style attractively appointed public facility to conduct their banking at a teller's counter. In sharp contrast, the wheelchair user can get to the banking hall only through an inconvenient nonpublic assisted route that includes intrusion upon workers in their offices. It is understandable, then, that wheelchair users would equate themselves with victims of invidious discrimination. Hence, the Court can understand the reasons for the emotion with which the case was presented. However, the Court finds totally unjustified Plaintiffs' accusations of a callous disregard for persons with disabilities on the part of NationsBank.

The Court finds that NationsBank (like its predecessors) does everything reasonable, and more, to accommodate disabled persons who wish to use its facilities. There is no suggestion that, except because of the problems inherent in the historic building at issue, NationsBank has failed to provide essentially complete access to wheelchair mobile patrons in the District of Maryland (or elsewhere for that matter). In the instant case, NationsBank seeks, as is its right and in service of a public interest worthy of recognition, to preserve historically significant features of the building at Ten Light Street.

The Court, then, is presented with a conflict between the desire of wheelchair mobile persons to have unassisted access to public facilities and the desire of an operator of an historical building to preserve the structure in its original architectural form. As discussed herein, when the United States Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act that governs the resolution of the dispute, it reached a compromise between the absolutes of complete wheelchair accessibility to all public facilities and complete sanctity for older structures. It is in light of that statute, and without resolving the public policy arguments of the respective parties, that the Court decides the instant case.

II. BACKGROUND
A. The Parties

Plaintiff Jacqueline Speciner ("Speciner") is an individual with disabilities that require her to use a wheelchair for mobility. Speciner, therefore, has a "disability" within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (the "ADA").

Plaintiff MCIL Resources for Independent Living, Inc. ("MCIL") is a Maryland non-profit corporation with a mission to provide services and advocacy to help empower persons with disabilities to lead self-directed, independent, and productive lives in the community.

Defendant NationsBank, N.A. ("the Bank1" or "NationsBank") is a corporation which, among other things, operates bank branches. The Bank (or a predecessor in interest) was at all times relevant hereto the owner of the building at Ten Light Street in Baltimore City ("the Building"). On the mezzanine level of the Building, there is a magnificently appointed banking hall (the "Banking Hall") with teller counters and other facilities for members of the public to conduct banking business.

B. The Building

Since 1929, the most prominent feature of the Baltimore City skyline has been the thirty-four story Aztec-revival art deco structure located at Ten Light Street ("the Building"). The Building, and those responsible for its creation, have received a number of architectural awards and honors.

The Building can be entered through sets of doors on Baltimore Street and on Light Street. Both entrances are constructed of bronze, marble, and limestone and appear today very much as they did when built in 1929. The doorways are surrounded by stone sculptures that depict, among other things, occupations and events contributing to Baltimore's progress and historical events, including the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Bronze friezes and braided columns frame exterior doorways at both entrances and encase the individual door jambs. Decorative bronze grilles and antique marble line the vestibules between sets of doors at both entrances. Inside of the Building's Light Street entrance, the Banking Hall is separated from the main lobby by a marble stairway and heavily decorated wrought iron gates that were designed by Samuel Yellin, a famous ironworker.

C. Access to the Building and the Banking Hall

A person in a standard size wheelchair can obtain unassisted access to the Building through a wheel chair accessible door at the Light Street entrance. The doorway at the Light Street entrance does not provide a complete entry route with thirty-one inches of clearance, which is typically considered adequate for wheelchair access, due to a narrowing to some twenty-nine and one half inches at one point. Nevertheless, a person in a standard size wheelchair can, without an unreasonable degree of skill or effort, successfully maneuver through the door unassisted.2 Once inside the Light Street entrance, a wheelchair user can have unassisted access to virtually all of the public facilities in the thirty-four story building but not the Banking Hall.

To get to the Banking Hall, a wheelchair user must proceed, with assistance, through a labyrinthine route. The person must ask a guard for help and wait for a bank employee to operate a non-automatic elevator not generally used by the public to get to the mezzanine level. Once on the mezzanine level, the wheelchair user must proceed through halls, bank offices in some of which employees are working, and a balcony-type area with some narrow passageways to reach an ancient (albeit well maintained) manual elevator. There the wheelchair user again must wait for an elevator operator for transport to the Banking Hall level. At that level, the wheelchair user can proceed through an office area to the Banking Hall itself. Once there, the wheelchair user can obtain service at a desk.3 Thus, an individual using a wheelchair must endure inconvenience, delay, and, to a degree, the embarrassment of intruding into non-public office areas to reach the Banking Hall.

It is not at all surprising that only rarely do wheelchair users, on the order of only one a year, choose to use the Banking Hall. Nevertheless, in fairness to the Bank, there is no better way to get a wheelchair user into the Banking Hall. Moreover, the Bank makes every effort to provide alternative services at the Building for those who may wish them. And, although providing no basis for excusing the Bank from any legal obligation it may have with respect to the Building, the Bank has a completely accessible branch in a modern building located within three city blocks of the Building.

D. The Matters at Issue

Plaintiffs contend that the Bank is in violation of the ADA with respect to:

• the 1992 modification of the Light Street entrance;

• the continuing absence of wheelchair access to the Banking Hall; and

• the 1994 renovation of the Banking Hall.

The Court will set forth the pertinent statutory framework and its decision as to Plaintiffs' contentions.

III. THE STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

Title III of the ADA broadly prohibits discrimination against any individual "on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates4 a place of public accommodation." 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a). There is no doubt that Speciner qualifies as an individual with a disability and that the Building was, and is, a "place of public accommodation" within the meaning of the ADA. Id.

Under the ADA, there are different degrees of obligations imposed on an operator with respect to:

• existing [pre-January 26, 19935] facilities;

• new [post-January 26, 1993] construction; and

• alterations to facilities.

See id.; Paralyzed Veterans of Am. v. Ellerbe Becket Architects & Eng'rs, P.C., 950 F.Supp. 393, 395 (D.D.C.1996), aff'd sub nom. Paralyzed Veterans of Am. v. D.C. Arena L.P., 117 F.3d 579 (D.C.Cir. 1997); Small v. Dellis, No. Civ. AMD 96-3190, 1997 WL 853515 at *3-4 (D.Md. ...

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