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Architects and ADA compliance

Scales of justiceIn September, the law firm of Collins Collins Muir + Stewart reported on three cases (two in Illinois and one in California) that may be signaling good news for architects when it comes to claims involving allegations of ADA non-compliance.

In the case of Equal Rights Center v. Niles Bolton Associates, a disability advocacy group sued the owner of several apartment buildings that were not ADA-compliant. The owner settled with the group, promising major retrofitting. The owner then sued the architect for indemnity, breach of contract, negligence, and contribution. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the owner’s responsibility regarding ADA compliance was non-delegable and did not allow the owner to shift responsibility to the architect.

In the case of Chicago Housing Authority v. DeStefano and Partners, Ltd., a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) audit determined that several multifamily residential buildings didn’t comply with ADA requirements and needed numerous modifications. The owner sued the architect for breach of contract and indemnity. The owner claimed that they fulfilled their duties by retaining a licensed architect to ensure ADA compliance. The court again found that “there are no provisions within ADA, or its accompanying regulations, that permit indemnification or the allocation of liability between the various entities subject to the ADA.”

The California case (Independent Living Center of Southern California v. City of Los Angeles) didn’t involve construction, but rather the handling of grants, assuring that they were going to ADA-compliant projects. The city attempted to obtain indemnity from the actual project owners, but the court stated that the ADA is not intended to “ameliorate the liability of wrongdoers by providing defendants such a remedy against [other parties] with ‘unclean hands.’”

Of course, there is no guarantee that cases in California involving the construction of non-ADA-compliant projects will result in similar findings, or that other states will follow the lead of Illinois and California; although findings in one state often influence the decisions of other states. Architects should still take care to design projects prudently, especially in reference to ADA requirements. These cases are encouraging, but do not provide guaranteed protection for design professionals. Remember that having to defend any claim is time-consuming and expensive. And since the law regarding the ADA changes quickly, it’s always prudent to seek the advice of local legal counsel before undertaking a new project.

For more information on claims involving the ADA, please refer to our “FHAA and ADA” claims study, which includes examples of ADA claims handled by CNA, and provides charts showing ADA claims by project type and region and average ADA indemnity payments by region.