Are Your Golf Courses Accessible to Guests with Disabilities:  How Does the ADA Apply to Your Club?

shutterstock_109624058Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of disability with regard to their participation and “equal enjoyment” in places open to the public, or “places of public accommodation.”  Under this law, places of public accommodation, such as stores, restaurants, hotels and gyms, are required to make goods and services available to and usable by individuals with disabilities on an equal basis with members of the general public.

The U.S. Department of Justice has issued regulations to address specific requirements of the ADA. These requirements include detailed architectural requirements known as the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (“ADA Standards”), which are based on federal ADA Accessibility Guidelines (“ADAAG”).

The ADAAG address golf courses and other recreational facilities. These guidelines were developed to make certain activities such as golf are accessible to as many golfers as possible and not detract from the fundamental challenge and nature of the game. In short, the law requires golf courses to meet specific requirements so long as they are “readily achievable.”  If the requirements are not “readily achievable” a safe harbor exists for non- compliance. To be exempted under this readily achievable standard, a golf course would need to show that the cost of making its course accessible is beyond its financial means.

Golf Course Accessibility Requirements

  • Accessible Routes on the Golf Course: Golf courses must provide continuous, unobstructed pathways (of at least 48″ in width) to connect all areas within the boundaries of the golf course. This includes the bag drop area, parking lot, clubhouse and pro shop, practice facilities, actual golf course (tees, fairways, greens, and routes between holes), course toilet facilities, amenities (snack bar, halfway house), and weather shelters.

  • Alternative Golf Cart Passage: The ADAAG recognizes that it may be impractical to provide an accessible route (48″ wide path) through all areas of the golf course due to the unpredictable nature of golf ball flight and the fact that altering slopes or the architecture of the course could diminish the challenge of the In such instances, an alternative golf cart passage can be substituted for an accessible route. This is simply an area that can be used by golf carts to gain access to certain areas and does not need to have a prepared surface. As an example, alternative golf cart passages would be a recommended route over a turf area to access greens, fairways, and teeing grounds.
  • Practice Facilities: A golf course’s driving ranges and practice facilities must have an accessible route or golf cart passage (48″ wide) that is connected to accessible teeing At least one teeing station or a minimum of 5% of the total number of stations, whichever is greater, must be accessible and provide space for a golf cart to enter and exit.
  • Teeing Grounds: A golf course must provide access from the cart path to at least one teeing ground on each If one or two teeing grounds are provided for each hole, only the forward teeing ground must be accessible. For holes with three or more teeing grounds, two of the teeing grounds must be accessible. According to the Guidelines, existing courses are not required to provide access to the forward teeing ground if terrain makes compliance infeasible.
  • Course Barriers: Curbs and other man-made barriers are often installed along paths to restrict golf carts from entering at specific Where such barriers exist, openings at least 60″ wide must be provided at intervals not to exceed 75 yards.
  • Putting Greens: Golf courses are required to design and construct putting greens so that a golf cart can enter and exit the green.
  • Weather Shelters: Where provided, golf courses are required to design and construct weather shelters so that a golf cart can enter and exit
  • Bunkers: Bunkers have been a particularly difficult issue to tackle because modifying these hazards to make them ADA accessible would change the challenge and character of the golf For this reason, there have been no proposed guidelines or design requirements applied to bunkers. From a playability standpoint, the USGA published A Modification of The Rules of Golf for Golfers with Disabilities that outlines procedures for retrieving a ball from a bunker, and dropping and playing the next shot from outside the bunker (see Rule 28 – Ball Unplayable). With good design, it is possible to construct bunkers with an accessible route; however, such design guidelines are not mandated at this time.

The regulations described above are intended to provide a functionally equivalent golfing experience to golfers with disabilities. Golf course owners and operators should conduct an accessibility study of their courses to determine whether they meet the ADA standards and develop a plan for any portion of their courses that do not comply with federal law.

Golf course owners and operators should also make sure to check applicable laws and regulations in the states in which they operate, as state law may provide greater accessibility requirements.

For example, in November 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida denied a golf club owner’s motion to dismiss a complaint filed by a patron of the Lake Henry Golf Club who was only capable of walking very short distances, finding that the plaintiff had properly pled a claim under Title III of the ADA.

Specifically, Albert Ferguson, who suffers from several health conditions that limit his mobility, claimed that he enjoys playing golf, and that given his limited walking range, he is only able to play by driving his golf cart directly to tee boxes, putting greens, and other areas of the course so that he can park his cart a short distance from his ball. Ferguson further claimed that while the Lake Henry Golf Club permits the use of golf carts, it prohibits carts from being parked on tee boxes, stopping on the fairway, or parking within thirty feet of the putting green. According to Ferguson, these restrictions discriminate against individuals with mobility impairments even though reasonable accommodations exist, are available on the market or within the course itself, and are necessary to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not excluded, denied services, or otherwise treated differently.

In response to these allegations, the golf club owner argued that Ferguson failed to allege what barriers he encountered on the property, whether he was able to overcome them, or how they impeded his use and enjoyment of the facility, as required to sufficiently allege a cause of action for liability under Title III of the ADA. The defendant further asserted that the complaint is barren of facts and states nothing more than recitation of various ADA guidelines with general conclusory statements unconnected to any specific allegations related to actual barriers.

Despite the defendant’s assertions, the court found that Ferguson sufficiently plead the elements of a case; namely that he is disabled, that the owner/operator of Lake Henry Golf Club denied him full and equal enjoyment of the golf course, and that the removal of the barriers at the property is readily achievable. Further, the court held that Ferguson provided “fair notice” of his charges and the grounds for the complaint by alleging that various barriers on the course limit his ability to enjoy the premises fully and equally, and prevent him from fully accessing the property.

Notably, the case did not discuss the ADA Standards or the requirements set forth in the 2010 ADA Standards, including those that specifically apply to all public, municipal, and private golf courses open to play by the general public. Rather, the Court decided that a discussion and/or analysis of these requirements was not warranted at this stage of the case.

Golf Cart Accessibility Requirements

Often, accessible golf carts, also known as single-rider carts, are used by individuals with mobility impairments. The carts typically are operated with hand controls and have seats that swivel to get the golfer into a hitting position. The carts are designed to avoid injury to the course and can be driven up onto tees and greens.

Despite the recent promulgation of the ADA regulations pertaining to golf courses as set forth above (the intent of which is, presumably, to encourage individuals with disabilities to play golf), there currently are no regulations in the ADA specifically addressing accessible golf carts or requiring a golf course to make accessible golf carts available.

Instead, the DOJ has been working on standards for accessible golf carts, including the number of golf carts that must be at each course, and to adopt safety standards for golf carts. The DOJ’s proposed Rule Making process in this regard is still pending and has been pending for nearly a decade.

Even in the absence of specific regulations addressing accessible golf carts, however, the door remains open for disabled golfers to litigate in an effort to assert their belief that they are entitled to an accessible golf cart under ADA Guidelines. The Department of Justice has used existing ADA regulations in several court cases in recent years to require accessible golf carts. In 2008, in reference to whether golf carts needed to be accessible, the DOJ stated that golf carts were “free-standing equipment” and, as such, “if a person with a disability does not have full and equal access to a covered entity’s services because of the lack of accessible equipment, the entity must provide that equipment, unless doing so would be a fundamental alteration or would not be readily achievable.”

Thus, while a narrow reading of the ADA and its regulations does not specifically require accessible golf carts (or set forth a specific number of carts that must be made accessible), the landscape of the law appears to be changing in this regard.  As a result, it is advisable for golf courses to maintain at least one accessible golf cart for public use. And, ideally, it would be prudent for a golf course to make two accessible carts available, in order to permit two golfers with disabilities to play the same course on the same day, and/or permit two disabled golfers to play together.

Enforcement of the ADA and its Regulations

Under Title III of the ADA, private plaintiffs may bring lawsuits to obtain court orders to stop discrimination. Although monetary damages generally are not available in such suits, reasonable attorneys’ fees, may be awarded. Furthermore, a golf course may be forced to make significant remediations at a substantial cost through either a court order or a private settlement. Generally, private settlements also result in substantial attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff’s counsel.

Individuals may also file complaints with the DOJ, which is authorized to bring lawsuits in cases of general public importance or where a “pattern or practice” of discrimination is alleged. The DOJ may also obtain civil penalties from a golf course of up to $55,000 for the first violation, and $110,000 for any subsequent violation.

Conclusion 

As set forth above, the test of ADA compliance within the eye of the law is full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities and privileges to the disabled person as that afforded the able bodied; in other words, a functionally equivalent experience.

In order to be in compliance with the law, golf course owners and operators must familiarize themselves with these requirements, conduct an accessibility study, and where necessary, implement all required changes. The failure to ensure sufficient compliance with federal and state law could result in legal exposure for your golf course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s