In a ruling that advocates say could open Uber Technologies Inc. up to additional litigation over providing service to disabled people, a New York state court judge in Brooklyn found that the ride-sharing company’s arbitration clause was too ambiguous to move a disabled woman’s suit against the company into arbitration.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Francois Rivera found that plaintiff Elizabeth Ramos, who lives in the Starrett City section of Brooklyn and who uses a wheelchair, did not unequivocally agree to the arbitration clause and that Uber’s motion to compel arbitration “improperly depends upon implication or subtlety in the interpretation of its ambiguous registration process.”
Uber does not require drivers to use accessible vehicles and provides a separate app, UberWAV, that is available in New York City and is intended to connect disabled riders to wheelchair-accessible vehicles through third-party fleets such as taxicabs.
In 2014, the Taxi & Limousine Commission agreed to a settlement in a federal class action suit to increase the number of accessible vehicles in its fleet to 50 percent by 2020, but Uber is not beholden to this requirement.
Ramos alleges in her suit, in which she alleges violations of New York state and New York City human rights laws, that on July 20, 2016, she tried getting a ride via UberWAV, but after an hour and three separate attempts to summon a car, one never showed.
Uber moved to move the case to arbitration, arguing that, when Ramos registered an Uber account on her phone in 2015, she accepted Uber’s terms and conditions, which included an agreement to arbitrate legal disputes.
But, in denying the motion for arbitration and allowing Ramos’ suit to proceed in his court, Rivera found that the language on the payment page was “on its face ambiguous.”
David Schwartz, a partner at Gerstman Schwartz & Malito, appeared for Ramos.
Andrew Spurchise of Littler Mendelson appeared for Uber in the case. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Rivera gave Uber a 30-day window from his May 31 order to file an answer in the case. A spokesman for the company did not respond to requests for comment.
Rivera’s ruling could have “significant ramifications” for people who have disabilities, said Rebecca Serbin, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, and that arbitration clauses like those used by Uber are “regularly used to keep people with disabilities from vindicating their civil rights.”
“Uber operates its massive transportation service throughout the country, and offers little to no access to its services to passengers who require wheelchair-accessible transportation,” Serbin said.
Serbin also noted that, because a majority of subway stations in New York City are not accessible, ride-sharing services like Uber could potentially help fill in the gaps.
Serbin was not involved with the Ramos case, but she is one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in a proposed class action suit taking on Uber for providing virtually no wheelchair-accessible vehicles in New York City.
The suit, filed last year in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the city’s human rights law.
Uber filed in December a motion to dismiss the case for lack of standing, but U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald has yet to rule on the motion.