Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mervyns must reconfigure stores to make merchandise more accessible

From The San Francisco Chronicle July 31:

Mervyns, the department store chain that on July 29 filed for bankruptcy, on July 30 lost a round in a long-running legal dispute when the California Court of Appeal ruled it must find ways to make all merchandise available to disabled consumers.

A three-judge panel, ruling unanimously in a case filed in 2002 by Californians for Disability Rights reversed a 2004 judgment by an Alameda County Superior Court judge and told the company to produce a remedy for access problems for disabled consumers.

That is not expected to be coming forthwith, however, said Sid Wolinsky, a lawyer with the Berkeley nonprofit advocacy group, because of Mervyns' bankruptcy filing.

"What it means in the case of Mervyns remains to be seen because of its financial woes," Wolinsky said. "If the whole business collapses, it does not mean much."

The ruling is specific to the troubled Mervyns, but it is significant, if it stands, because it could have broad implications for retailers statewide. It will establish a precedent in California for how retailers will have to accommodate disabled consumers, Wolinsky said.

The suit claimed that Mervyns denied access to people with mobility disabilities by failing to provide adequate pathways between merchandise displays. The nonprofit said the Hayward company violated the state's Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act.

The Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that Mervyns discriminated against people with disabilities by blocking aisles with removable fixtures without providing effective means for making merchandise available.

"It means that every retail establishment that is newly built or substantially remodeled in the last 15 years - from 1993 on, the date of the Americans with Disability Act - must comply with regular building standards," said Wolinsky. "They have to provide accessible aisles."