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Chipotles gets a taste of the law run amok
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There are a number of businesses fleeing California.

The problem is they may not have fled far enough.

Over the years the Golden State has proven to be a leader in a number of cutting edge areas often starting trends that eventually spread across the nation. Usually such trends are traced back to the Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, or places such as Southern California beaches. But there is one other trend setter that is often overlooked and is done so at great risk - the Ninth U.S. District Court of Appeals based in San Francisco.

To say the court has a slightly different bent or leaning than other district courts of appeal is a gross understatement.

If you doubt this just mosey on down to a Chipotle Mexican Grill where you can view the latest handiwork of the court. And make sure you take a tape measure.

The court of appeals ruled Monday that any wall that blocks the view of patrons in wheelchairs of food preparation in a Chipotle restaurant that denies them the same experience as non-disabled customers is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ruling is the indirect result of one Mautizio Antoninetti sustaining an injury that left him disabled while serving in the Italian Army. Don’t dare ask whether a plaintiff is a United States citizen - which Antoinette may actually be. If you do, you run the risk of discriminating and who knows what the Ninth District would have to say about that. (Note: I was careful not to say “god knows” as it is clear what the Ninth District thinks of anything to do with Christian-based religion.)

Chipotle’s 45-inch wall was effectively blocking his view. So he did what any red-blooded American (gee he must be a citizen after all) would do. He sued.

That was in 2005.

Since then, Chipotle’s took it upon themsleves to lower the walls between food preparation and the customer line which is reflected in the design of the Manteca location. Chipotle’s spokesman confirmed the Denver-based firm retrofitted its California restaurants with a “new counter design that eliminates any concern regarding wheelchair accessibility” in a move unrelated to the lawsuit. They are also doing the same for new and renovated restaurants in other states.

It doesn’t matter that Chipotle’s is complying. While the order applies to just two of their restaurants in the San Diego area, the court ruling sets federal standards for cases in California and eight other nearby states.

In essence, any dispensers of food and drink that gives able-bodied folks a view of food preparation better do the same for handicapped people as well. Obviously any counter 45 inches or higher now makes such places targets of lawsuits in nine states.

Your initial reaction might be - so what? After all, it is only fair that the disabled have the same access, right?

No argument there. But the rub comes in what the court has opened the door to in terms of exposure.

Now a number of small businesses - and chain operations - have become marked as optimum targets for expensive lawsuits and retrofits. Yes, they could avoid exposure by immediately dumping tons of money into retrofits but why should they?

Isn’t the primary failure here of government and not Chipotle’s?

It wasn’t Chipotle’s that passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was the government. The federal government should have had the foresight to establish such requirements now being foisted on Chipotle’s when the law was written or, at the very least, as it came to their attention for mandatory standards for new construction.

That, of course, isn’t how laws written by lawyers and enforced by lawyers work. Instead of trying to seek universal compliance through government competency by applying it to new undertakings, the ADA law allows plaintiffs - and their lawyers that get big pay days - to go after existing conditions.

Chipotle’s definitely started after the ADA went into effect 20 years ago. That, however, is the exact point. The government regulates commerce and therefore should have had the protections in place that businesses had to comply with when they built new stores. How could government therefore allow this to happen especially when they have laws in place?

True, government regulations are about as easy to follow as reading every telephone directory in the United States but they are the ones setting the standards that the game is played by and not businesses.

Chipotle’s obviously had legal building permits issued by jurisdictions that are supposed to comply with all federal and state laws.

Could it be that no reasonable person prior to the lawsuit against Chipotle’s thought this should be an ADA issue?

Perish the thought. Business, after all, is supposed to anticipate what government edicts will be handed down from imprecise laws as well as complying with laws as they are written.

Chipotle’s had best hope that the court doesn’t decide next that not speaking English is a disability as that would certainly not provide those customers the same restaurant experience as someone who is English speaking.