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What’s the Deal with the Wrigley Field Wheelchair Lawsuit?

Major renovations to the Friendly Confines have made it harder for fans in wheelchairs to get the same ballpark experience, the lawsuit alleges.

Who gets access to the true Bleacher Bum experience?   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

In the 1970s, a buck and some change could get you a same-day ticket to Wrigley Field’s “cheap seats” in the bleachers where you baked in the hot sun. That was part of the fun: attracting fans—rich and poor—to be part of the Bleacher Bum antics, made famous by a hit local play that catapulted its actors to Hollywood

Those days and prices are long gone, but the lure of Wrigley Field—especially the experience of being a modern-day Bleacher Bum—is at the heart of a federal lawsuit filed last month on behalf of David F. Cerda, a 20-year-old Chicagoan who has been going to Cubs games for a decade.

Cerda, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair to get around, was able to frequent the right field bleachers until recent renovations converted that space to a “premium” bar area. Cerda’s only outfield option now is in center field behind a “dark glass pane,” where the view is “like watching the ballgame on a very dark TV screen,” according to his attorney and father, David A. Cerda.

The lawsuit alleges that Wrigley’s massive ongoing makeover reduces and excludes accessible seating in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Stadium standards require wheelchair spaces “be an integral part of the seating plan” that “does not isolate them from other spectators.” Less rigorous standards apply to stadiums built before 1992 (Wrigley was constructed in 1914), but new construction and alterations must comply with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, to ensure wheelchair patrons have seats and viewing angles “equivalent to or better than the choices available to other spectators.” This directive has been cited in several cases.  

Some ADA legal experts say the lawsuit against the Cubs has merit, especially given the ballpark’s ongoing $750 million renovation. “If these were minor changes [to Wrigley Field], the Cubs could argue against it,” says Philadelphia attorney David Ferleger, who has argued ADA-related cases in front of the Supreme Court. “But these major changes are enough to require the heightened accessibility compliance… [and] seem to have been done with minimal attention to ensuring accessibility in all of the newly built parts.” He notes that it appears there will be less accessible seating than prior to renovations.

At issue is the team’s obligation to provide wheelchair spectators access to the “full Wrigley ballpark experience,” says Ferleger. “It’s a very different experience to watch the game from behind a dark glass pane” and be separated from the crowd.

Ferleger cites the Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. v. Maurizio Antoninetti case in 2011 where he was counsel of record in a Supreme Court defense of a U.S. Appeals Court decision to guarantee his client could have “non-discriminatory access to Chipotle’s food counter experience.” 

Cerda’s Wrigley lawsuit does not request monetary damages and basically asks for more accessible seating in more locations in the ballpark, as well as payment of the elder Cerda’s legal costs and fees. 

An attorney representing the Cubs declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did a Cubs spokesman. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts told fans during a Q&A session at last weekend’s Cubs Convention that while he could not “talk to any specifics” about the lawsuit, “As we’ve done the renovation, we’ve looked for every chance we can to make the park more accessible.”

The elder Cerda is unconvinced, noting the accessible seats in the boxes behind home plate were moved several rows back. He adds, “the decision to replace the wheelchair seating with a bar in the right field bleachers was driven by profit rather than complying with the ADA and accommodating people with disabilities.” He also notes the overhauls of the left field bleachers and box seats along the first and third base lines did not add wheelchair seating, so his amended lawsuit seeks accessible seating in those sections as well. (ADA requires accessible seating be sprinkled throughout the stadium.)

Attorney Barry C. Taylor, vice president of the civil rights team of Equip for Equality, a statewide advocacy group, agrees that “if the allegations are true, [the lawsuit] makes a reasonable argument there are some real concerns about ADA [compliance].”

“Retrofitting stadiums” for accessibility frequently is the subject of litigation or negotiation, according to Mark Hellner, the executive director of the Center for Disability and Elder Law, based in Chicago. The Cubs case is unusual because it’s limited to the issue of seating; most complaints also list other concerns such as parking, transportation, and restrooms, he says.

Because “the lawsuit is so focused and narrow,” says Ferleger, "it could be easily resolved if the parties sat together in good faith with a mediator… and this is something Wrigley Field should want to fix.”

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