Former Murnaghan Fellow Jessie Weber shares year highlight

Jessie Weber, 07.28.14

One of the Murnaghan Fellow’s responsibilities is searching for potential impact cases.  I will be honest here: the process of searching is not very glamorous.  It involves poring over thousands of lower court decisions to find cases that could both benefit from the involvement of the Public Justice Center (“PJC”) and have a real impact on the lives of marginalized and underserved communities.  After months of searching, I identified two federal district court cases that fit the bill.  Little did I know at the time that one of these cases would not only end up having a positive impact on the state of the law, but also help shape my career trajectory and open to me opportunities usually reserved for far more experienced attorneys.

In Daniels v. Arcade, L.P., Gilroy Daniels, a wheelchair user, had filed suit under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) after visiting Baltimore’s Lexington Market and finding much of the building inaccessible.  Like far too many civil rights plaintiffs, Mr. Daniels never got his day in court.  Instead, the district court dismissed his case without reaching the merits of his claim.  The court ruled that Mr. Daniels was not entitled to bring the lawsuit because he lacked standing to sue, basing its decision on factors such as Mr. Daniels’ history of bringing ADA claims, how far he lived from Lexington Market, how often he had visited the market, and the definitiveness of his plans to continue patronizing the inaccessible market.

Upon reading the district court’s decision, I knew that the court’s analysis had to be wrong. How could we make enforcement of the right to accessible public accommodations contingent upon individuals with disabilities continuing to visit inaccessible places and repeatedly subjecting themselves to discrimination? And why should proximity and history of patronage matter? More than 20 years after passage of the ADA, shouldn’t individuals with disabilities be entitled to travel and visit new places with the expectation that they will be accessible? After I brought the case to the attention of Deb Gardner, the PJC’s Legal Director, she encouraged me to reach out to local disability rights experts to get their take.  I did so and learned that this decision was part of a disturbing national trend of courts applying excessively stringent standing requirements in disability rights cases.

Deb encouraged me to reach out to Mr. Daniels’ counsel in the trial court to see if they would be open to me handling the appeal. Fortunately, they were happy for the assistance.  Just under two years out of law school, I now had a client who I was representing in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  Deb gave me the space (and confidence) to craft my own strategy and arguments, draft briefs, and ultimately argue before the Fourth Circuit.

Of course the best part about representing Mr. Daniels was winning the appeal! The Fourth Circuit agreed with us that the district court’s standing analysis had been improperly restrictive and remanded the case for further proceedings.  Although it was an unpublished opinion, Daniels v. Arcade, L.P., No. 11-1191, 2012 WL 1406299 (4th Cir. Apr. 24, 2012), has, as of today’s date, been cited in over 20 trial court opinions, in the Fourth Circuit and beyond.  The Fourth Circuit’s decision in Daniels represents an important pushback against the trend of too easily dismissing disability rights cases before reaching the merits.

Another highlight of working on Daniels was the fire it sparked in me to pursue disability rights work. I had felt such outrage when I read the trial court’s decision and that outrage only grew as I discovered through my work on the case the huge gap between the rights guaranteed to individuals with disabilities in this country and their ability to enjoy and enforce those rights. As it turned out, the local disability rights experts I had consulted in evaluating the case ended up becoming my colleagues and mentors at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP, the law firm where I currently work.  I am so grateful for my time as a Murnaghan Fellow!