A Connecticut advocacy group for the hearing-impaired has filed a lawsuit against a movie theater chain for failing to provide accommodation for deaf and hard of hearing movie patrons.
The suit was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Connecticut against Bow Tie Cinemas, which operates 12 theater complexes in Connecticut and also has cinemas in six other states. The lead plantiff is the Connecticut Association of the Deaf, which is being represented on a pro bono basis by attorneys at McCarter & English. The Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities and the National Association of the Deaf are also backing the plaintiffs.
The claim is being brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits businesses from discriminating based on disability and requires reasonable efforts to make services accessible. The plaintiffs say that deaf people who attempted to go to Bow Tie theaters in Hartford and West Hartford were told that the captioning devices that make the movies accessible to deaf patrons were either unavailable or did not work.
Bow Tie is being represented by the Williams Mullen law firm in Richmond, Va. The firm's lead attorney on the case, D. Earl Baggett, has not yet responded to the complaint in court. Baggett did not immediately respond to a request for comment made to his office. The company-owned theaters in Connecticut do not operate under the Bow Tie name. For instance, the Criterion Cinemas in New Haven, the Landmark 9 and Majestic 6 in Stamford, the Criterion Cinemas at Blue Back Square in West Hartford and the Palace 17 in Hartford are all owned by Bow Tie.
This is not the first lawsuit by advocates for the deaf against a movie chain. In 2010, a Berkeley-based group filed suit in Californial against Cinemark, claiming the Texas-based movie chain had refused to install closed captioning devices. At the time, the attorney for the plaintiffs noted that most large theater companies had installed the devices.
In a news release, the Connecticut plaintiffs offer some background. For decades, they said, deaf movie-goers were limited to a small selection of movies that were modified to display open captions — text that appears at the bottom of the screen. However, very few first run movies were captioned, or they were shown at odd hours because theater operators maintained that open captioned movies would not attract general audiences.
However, according to the plaintiffs, new technology allows captions to be displayed on the screen, or electronically transmitted to small devices – such as glasses that project captions or to devices that deaf movie-goers place in cup holders. This technology ensures that there is no reason to deprive deaf patrons of equal access to the movie going experience.
"We are tired of waiting," said Harvey Corson, president of the Connecticut Association for the Deaf. "All we want is to be able to go to the movies with our friends and family members like other Americans. The technology exists. They just need to make it available, and to make sure their employees know how to turn it on."
Among those representing the plaintiffs is Catherine Mohan, a partner with McCarter & English.
"The lack of access is particularly troubling given that the American School for the Deaf is a mile from the Blue Back Square theater" in West Hartford, Mohan said. "There are 70,000 deaf and hard of hearing people in Hartford County who are being shut out of the movie-going experience."
According to the complaint, the cost of providing captioning for deaf and hard of hearing patrons "would not be burdensome." Although the complaint does not specify what that cost would be, Mohan said they had been negotiating with attorneys representing the theater company since last year to get enough devices to serve deaf and hearing impaired patrons.
"We were willing to work with them and continue to be willing to work with them to meet the reasonable accomodations" that are required, Mohan said.
She said there have been relatively few complaints along these lines, in part because the improved technology to provide captioning is so new. One recent decision came out of a 2010 Arizona appellate court decision, which found it is not unreasonable to require a theater to provide hearing aid devises for patrons. Leading up to that decision, the U.S. District Court in Phoenix had dismissed the lawsuit in 2008, concluding that the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Arizonans with Disabilities Act do not require movie theaters to provide captions and descriptions.
The state appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled that closed captions and descriptions are auxiliary aids and services included under Title III of the ADA.•