Sapp v. MHI P'ship, Ltd.: Sales Office in Model Home Subject to ADA Requirements

A Texas federal court has considered whether a developer is liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") for failing to make a model home which was used as a sales office accessible to individuals suffering from a disability.

Patricia and Pat Sapp ("Sapps") both suffer from medical conditions which require them to use wheelchairs. The Sapps were interested in building a home in the Plantation Homes housing development. Mrs. Sapp called a sales representative for the development, and she told Mrs. Sapp to come to a model home that she was using as a sales office. In response to a question from Mrs. Sapp, the salesperson also informed Mrs. Sapp over the telephone that the model home was wheelchair accessible. However, when the Sapps arrived at the model home, they discovered that neither the front nor back door had a ramp making the model home wheelchair accessible. While Mrs. Sapp was able to negotiate the front steps while in her wheelchair and obtain the sales information inside the model home, on her way out her wheelchair spilled over and she suffered injuries. The Sapps brought a lawsuit against MHI Partnership d/b/a Plantation Homes ("Developer") for violations of the ADA and also a Texas statute. Both parties filed motions with the court seeking judgment in their favor.

The United States District Court, Northern District of Texas, ruled in favor of the Sapps. The court first considered the ADA claims. The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities. The purpose of the law is to assure equal access and services for disabled individuals, and requires that a place of public accommodation must be “readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.” The ADA lists a number of places that constitute places of public accommodation, one of which is "a sales or rental establishment."

The court first determined that the Sapps were disabled, as defined within the ADA, and that the Developer's model home was not accessible to Mrs. Sapp. The only question remaining was whether a model home sales office was subject to the terms of the ADA. The court ruled that since the model home was used a sales office, the model home was a place of public accommodation and the ADA applied to it. The court found support for its ADA interpretation in the Department of Justice's manual implementing the ADA, which states that model homes are not subject to the ADA unless they are used as a sales office, because a sales office is a place of public accommodation.

The Developer argued that since the model home would be sold and eventually used as a private residence, it was not subject to the ADA. The court rejected this argument, finding no support for the Developer's "ultimate purpose" test within the language of the ADA. The Developer also argued that because no transactions were closed in the model home, it did not constitute a sales office. The court rejected this argument as well, finding that the evidence showed that sales activities took place in the model home and that was all that was required to qualify as a place of public accommodation. The Developer's final argument was that the Sapps could have obtained the information from the Developer's other offices which were ADA accessible. The court also rejected this argument, finding that the ADA required that all sales offices be accessible.

The court also found that the Developers were liable for damages under a Texas statute barring discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Thus, the court ruled in favor of the Sapps on their ADA and state law claims, and asked the parties to submit supplemental briefs in order to help the court to determine the type of relief the Sapps should receive for the Developer's violations.

Sapp v. MHI P'ship, Ltd., 199 F. Supp. 2d 578 (N.D. Tex. 2002).