Disability suit against Uber gets U.S. scrutiny

Bloomberg News

The U.S. government told a court it's concerned about the civil rights issues raised by a lawsuit against Uber Technologies Inc. alleging discrimination against blind passengers.

The U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday that Uber's attempt to dismiss the case may be based on a misunderstanding about the Americans With Disabilities Act. The department asked a federal judge in San Francisco to consider its view before deciding whether to throw out the case.

"The United States' interests are particularly strong here," because the case against the on-demand car service "goes to the very heart" of the ADA's goal "to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency" for people with handicaps, according to the filing.

Uber, Lyft Inc. and other car-booking companies face growing legal challenges as they seek to crack open the U.S. taxi and limousine market, estimated by IbisWorld Research to be an $11-billion industry. Uber, founded in 2009, is the most highly valued U.S. technology start-up. The company raised $1.2 billion this month at a valuation of $40 billion.

The complaint filed in September by the National Federation of the Blind of California cited more than 30 instances nationwide of blind customers being refused rides. The group alleged that some blind riders with service animals were charged cancellation fees and harassed, and in one case, a guide dog was forced into the trunk of a car and the driver refused to pull over after the customer realized where the animal was.

Uber said when the lawsuit was filed that its mobile-app service is meant "to expand access to transportation options for all, including users with visual impairments and other disabilities." The company said it would deactivate any driver who refuses to transport a service animal.

The Justice Department said in Tuesday's filing that Uber's request for dismissal of the case is ambiguous because the company appears to argue that its service isn't a "public accommodation." That's not something the court needs to consider in determining whether Uber violated the ADA, the government said.

A representative of San Francisco-based Uber wasn't immediately available for comment on the government's filing.

The federation of the blind said in its complaint that the company told some riders that it can't control driver conduct because they are independent contractors, and advised guide dog users to let drivers know about the animals ahead of time, according to the complaint.

The group seeks a court order declaring that the company discriminates against blind customers with guide dogs, and to force it to take steps that ensure drivers don't refuse rides to the vision-impaired.

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