Visitors to shopping centers across the country have no doubt noticed the distinctive look of Hollister stores. They're designed to recall a Cali surf shack, with hundreds of them nationwide, including the one at Park Meadows Mall, featuring a faux-porch with a couple steps most shoppers must scale in order to enter the store.
But the elevated porches aren't long for this world. They'll all have to be modified thanks to a Colorado lawsuit that successfully argued the entrances violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Providing the details is Kevin W. Williams, legal program director for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, which first took on Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister's parent company, several years ago.
"We filed our complaint in 2009," Williams notes. "The issue was that we had members of my organization who use wheelchairs who had either been to a Hollister store or wanted to go into one and experienced a problem.
"Hollister stores were all built after the Americans with Disabilities Act," he points out. "The ADA was passed in 1990, and Hollister stores didn't exist until the year 2000. And a lot of them took what was a flat, level space in a shopping mall or outdoor shopping center -- and then, at the front entrance, they built these porches that have two steps. You have to walk up the steps to get up the porch, and then walk down two steps to get into the store."
This concept was important to Hollister, Williams notes: "They've said they don't advertise; they have a website, but that's it. So their whole branding idea, and the concept itself, revolves around what they refer to as the in-store experience. They want you to feel like you're stepping into a California beach shanty, and the words 'stepping into' are very meaningful to them. They think it's very important to have people have that experience -- one that's different from all the other stores."
Problem is, the steps make the main entrance inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. For that reason, Hollister stores have "separate entrances that somebody in a wheelchair can get into," Williams continues. "On either side of this porch-like structure, there are what look like window shutters. Next to the shutter doors at Park Meadows, for example, there's this tiny little button on the right-hand side, and if you look closely -- it's hard to see, because it blends in with the wall -- there is a wheelchair symbol. And if you push it, you're supposed to be able to get into the store that way."
Williams, who personally uses a motorized wheelchair, sees several problems with this alleged solution, though. The lack of signage directing those in wheelchairs to the other entrance effectively prevents them from using it: "You can't see the button unless you know it's there and know what to look for," he says. In addition, he cites examples of times when this alternative entrance was either left locked or was impossible to use because of displays placed on the other side.
And then there's the more fundamental issue of the message the design sends to those in wheelchairs.
"Back in 1954, the Supreme Court, when dealing with race discrimination, said that separate is inherently unequal," he allows. "And the ADA says you can't provide people with disabilities separate accommodations and benefits in new construction. Everywhere someone without a wheelchair can go, a person with a wheelchair should be able to go."
For these reasons, he argues that the Hollister porches insult the disabled community. "Maybe the entrance is inviting and wonderful to the cool kids who can walk up and down stairs. But for people who use wheelchairs, it's a slap in the face. It says to them, 'We're going to build a store you can't get into. Tough luck.'"
In the beginning, the CCDC suit touched on other issues at Hollister stores, including service counters that were too high for those in wheelchairs, along with the steps matter. But when the company fixed the counters, among other things, Williams's group decided for strategic reasons to focus on the elevated porches at two Colorado Hollisters -- after which the complaint was broadened to include Hollister stores elsewhere that were constructed in the same way.
Over the past couple of years, the U.S. District Court in Colorado consistently ruled in the CCDC's favor. Here are a series of important dates and background supplied by Williams:
• On April 9, 2012, the Court certified a nationwide class of "of all people with disabilities who use wheelchairs or electric scooters for mobility who, during the two years prior to the filing of the Complaint (Dkt. 1) in this case, were denied the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any Hollister store in the United States on the basis of disability."
• On August 31, 2011, United States District Court Judge Wiley Daniel ruled that building steps at the entrances of Hollister stores is in violation of the ADA. "Defendants have unnecessarily created a design for their brand that excludes people using wheelchairs from full enjoyment of the aesthetic for that brand. The steps to the center entrance are a legally unacceptable piece of that branding and violate Title III of the ADA."
• On January 24, 2013, the court held a hearing on the remaining pending motions for summary judgment. The court granted plaintiffs' motion and denied defendants'. This means that all 248 Hollister stores with steps must provide equal accessibility to customers who use wheelchairs. The court ordered the parties to meet and confer and attempt to arrive at a solution that provides equal access within 45 days. If the parties are unable to reach a solution they will request another hearing with the court.
Last week brought the final victory -- a permanent injunction covering what are now estimated to be 231 Hollister stores with the porch-and-steps design. Attorneys representing Abercrombie & Fitch "said we can fix things in four-and-a-half years," Williams divulges. "But the court said, 'We see no reason why you can't do it in three years. We just got the final order, and it says they have to fix at least 77 stores a year -- they can pick which ones -- and then report to the court and send photos to show they're doing it. They can also ask for a six-month extension if they can show good cause. But the court will supervise and manage things until they're all done. The bottom line is, they have to do it."
The takeaway, from Williams's perspective?
"If your'e a store builder, a movie theater builder, etc., you can't create inaccessibility," he replies. "If you do, you're going to get hammered by the ADA. You can't do it. You're not allowed -- period."
Here's the permanent injunction.
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