SCOTUS Denies Petition Alleging ADA Violation for Glass-Front Vending Machines

Sara Oakes
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2019

On October 2, 2017, the United States Supreme Court denied a petition to Emmette Magee (“Magee”), a blind man, who claimed that the vending machines violate Title III under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Coca-Cola vending machines, similar to other modern vending machines, are “self-service and fully automated machines that dispense bottles.” These machines also include credit and debit card processing, and payment from smartphones, but require the consumer to select a beverage using a number pad associated with the product in the vending machine. Magee, the petitioner, claimed that these vending machines lacked any meaningful accommodation for use by the blind, because the machines contained an “entirely visual interface.” 

What is Title III of the ADA?

Under Title III of the ADA, the act prohibits “discrimination on the basis of disability by covered public accommodations,” and these public facilities must be “designed, constructed, and altered” in compliance with all of the accessibility standards of the ADA. Title III requires accommodations for (1) public accommodations; (2) commercial facilities; and (3) private entities which offer licensing or certifications for education, professional or trade purposes. At issue in Magee’s case, was whether the public vending machine constituted a “place of public accommodation” under Title III of the ADA.

Under the ADA, a public accommodation refers to a “facility operated by a private entity whose operations affect commerce and fall with one of twelve categories.” These twelve categories include: (1) an inn or hotel; (2) facilities that provide guest rooms; (3) restaurants or bars; (4) entertainment venues and movie theatres; (5) retail establishments; (6) service establishments; (7) terminals for public transportation; (8) museums, libraries and galleries; (9) parks and other places of recreation; (10) places of education; (11) childcare centers and social service establishments; and (12) places of exercise. These twelve types of facilities are required to comply with Title III of the ADA, otherwise, can be penalized for failure to comply with the ADA.

Magee’s vending machine case and Title III of ADA

When Magee brought his claim to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, he claimed that the glass-front vending machines are discriminatory against blind individuals because the blind are unable to: (1) ascertain the products available inside the machines; (2) identify the selection code of any available products; (3) input knowingly a selection into the alphanumeric keypad; and (4) ultimately purchase products. The district court granted Coca-Cola’s motion to dismiss, because Magee failed to state a claim, as the coin-operated vending machine is not within the twelve specific categories of public places of public accommodation listed in the statute and federal regulations.

On Appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, because the vending machine did not fall within the public accommodation as defined in the statute. However, the Court of Appeals considered that the vending machine could be subject to various requirements of the ADA by “virtue of being in a hospital or bus station.” The court affirmed summary judgment for Coca-Cola, and Magee brought this claim against Coca-Cola and the vending machine, which was not subject to public accommodation.

On November 11, 2016, Magee filed the petition for a writ of certiorari, and Coca-Cola provided their respondent brief on January 19, 2017. Before deciding on the petition, the Supreme Court sought the Acting Solicitor General of the United States to file a brief to document the opinion of the United States.   The brief for the United States provided evidence that a vending machine does not constitute a public accommodation, because it is a standalone entity, and lacks the features characteristically required of public accommodation. Following the brief of the United States, the Supreme Court subsequently denied the petition on October 2.

What does this decision mean for public accommodations?

Attorneys and potential plaintiffs seeking to allege technology is discriminatory would benefit from bringing the claim under another area of the ADA. Since Title III specifically focuses on private businesses (i.e., public accommodations), seeking recovery for potential discriminatory technology under Title III would be inappropriate. In considering the decision from Magee v. Coca-Cola, it is important to for potential plaintiffs to recognize that the courts did not deny Magee’s claim simply because the vending machine was non-discriminatory, but rather it was denied because the vending machine itself was not a public accommodation and relief under Title III was not sufficient.

Although the Supreme Court denied this petition, retrospectively affirming the decision of the Court of Appeals, the broadening of the ADA requirement for emerging technologies is not over. The Supreme Court should be interested in emerging technologies and how these technologies affect the afford protections to those individuals under ADA. However, this decision has proven that even if the technology exists, when these technologies are stand-alone and not a public accommodation, there is no violation of Title III of the ADA.

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