Abercrombie & Fitch's (NYSE:ANF) Hollister chain will have to change the entrances of 248 of its stores after a federal judge in Denver ruled they violate the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The stores' front entries have stairs that the chain says are designed to offer the feel of a California beach house. But two customers who couldn't navigate them filed suit in 2009, which eventually turned into a class-action lawsuit. After settlement talks failed earlier, U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel ordered the chain last week to offer disabled customers more options.
According to the ruling, Hollister must change the entrances at a rate of 77 stores per year and make all stores more accessible by Jan. 1, 2017. The chain's architectural choices include leveling out stairs at entrances or installing ramps. It can also close off the stairway entrances so they're purely decorative and all customers would actually enter the stores through accessible doors.
Hollister argued that its current design complies with the ADA because stores include side entrances disguised as shuttered windows that are wheelchair accessible. The plaintiffs countered that those doors are often blocked with tables stacked with merchandise, and that they shouldn't have to use an "inferior" entrance. Judge Daniel ruled that customers who use wheelchairs must be entitled to the same experience as all other customers.
It's impossible to say whether Hollister could have avoided the lawsuit if the no-stairs entrances had been kept clear (one of the original plaintiffs told the Colorado Independent, "I would never go through a side door. It's not something I would do. I'm philosophically opposed to that"), the blocked entrances certainly didn't help its case. When store staff don't treat an entrance as an entrance but block it, it's a safety and fire hazard even if it wasn't deemed an ADA violation. And if the staff really wasn't trained to treat it as a customer entrance, it probably didn't qualify under the law anyway.
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