Justice Department Sues Uber for Disability Discrimination
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Justice Department Sues Uber over Wait Time Fees for Passengers with Disabilities

The Department of Justice has filed a federal anti-discrimination complaint against Uber, claiming that the ride-share giant unfairly overcharges people who need more time to get into a car due to a disability.

“Uber’s policies and practices of charging wait time fees based on disability have harmed many passengers and potential passengers with disabilities throughout the country,” the department said in a press release Wednesday.

The lawsuit targets a policy Uber launched in 2016, which started charging passengers wait time fees starting two minutes after the vehicle arrives at the pickup location.

The complaint says that the wait time fee starts once GPS indicates that the car has arrived, and drivers do not have discretion to waive a fee.

Uber has waived the wait time fees for disabled passengers upon request in some cases—but at times, also has denied refund requests from passengers with disabilities.

Specifically, according to the complaint:

In violation of the ADA, Uber has failed to (1) ensure adequate vehicle boarding time for passengers with disabilities; (2) ensure equitable fares for passengers with disabilities; and (3) make reasonable modifications to its policies and practices of imposing wait time fees as applied to passengers who, because of disability, require more time to board the vehicle.

As the complaint points out, it may take longer than two minutes for a person with a mobility device, such as a wheelchair or walker, to get into a car.

“Many passengers with disabilities require more than two minutes to board or load into a vehicle for various reasons, including because they may use mobility aids and devices such as wheelchairs and walkers that need to be broken down and stored in the vehicle or because they simply need additional time to board the vehicle,” the complaint says. “Passengers with disabilities who take longer than two minutes to board or load into the vehicle are charged a wait time fee regardless of the reason that it takes them longer than two minutes to begin the trip.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Uber said that its wait time fee policy was not meant to penalize passengers who took longer than two minutes to get into a car.

“Wait time fees are charged to all riders to compensate drivers after two minutes of waiting, but were never intended for riders who are ready at their designated pickup location but need more time to get into the car,” the statement said. “We recognize that many riders with disabilities depend on Uber for their transportation needs, which is why we had been in active discussions with the DOJ about how to address any concerns or confusion before this surprising and disappointing lawsuit.”

The DOJ’s complaint details the experiences of two passengers in two different cities who allegedly experienced discrimination in the form of wait time fees.

A woman identified as “Passenger A” is a quadriplegic who uses a manual wheelchair. She had moved to Kentucky in May 2020 to participate in a clinical study and rehabilitation program for spinal cord injuries, and required daily transportation to the University of Louisville.

The university was located five city blocks from Passenger A’s apartment.

According to the complaint, Passenger A, who had full-time nursing assistance, consistently called for an Uber from either the lobby of her apartment building or in front of it. Passenger A would start the boarding process when the car arrived.

“Her nursing assistant used a sliding board to help her transfer and slide into the backseat of the vehicle,” the complaint says, describing the multi-step process. “The assistant then assisted with moving Passenger A’s legs into the vehicle and buckling the safety belt over her. The assistant next collapsed Passenger A’s wheelchair and stored it in the trunk of the Uber vehicle.”

On average, it took Passenger A more than five minutes to get into the car.

In August 2020, Passenger A realized Uber had consistently been charging her a wait time fee for every single ride she had taken since she got there. Customer service told her that the wait time fees were automatic, and “therefore Uber could not do anything to prevent them from being charged if Passenger A exceeded the two-minute time limit for any reason,” the complaint said.

Although Passenger A never received a refund, she continued to use Uber, as she had limited options for getting to her daily rehabilitation appointments.

“Uber’s refusal to refund her money or to change its wait time fee policy makes Passenger A feel like a second-class citizen,” the complaint says.

A man identified as Passenger B lives in Queens, New York, and has cerebral palsy. He can walk short distances, but uses a wheelchair for mobility and regularly relied on Uber to take to him to social events, work, and to visit friends and family.

According to the complaint, Passenger B takes longer than two minutes to get into the car “because he must fold up his wheelchair and store it in the vehicle of the trunk, which often requires the driver’s assistance.”

In September 2018, he noticed that he had been charged a wait time fee for nearly every ride he had taken since January 2018. He contacted Uber and was initially given a refund, but it was limited.

“[A]fter he received a certain amount of refunds, a customer service associate informed him that he had reached the maximum amount of refunds and Uber would no longer issue him any additional refunds,” the complaint says.

According to the complaint, Uber provided 2.3 billion trips in the United States from 2017 to 2018, including more than 3.1 million individual trips per day.

In its statement, Uber said that it has recently changed its policy regarding wait time fees.

“It has been our policy to refund wait time fees for disabled riders whenever they alerted us that they were charged,” the statement said. “After a recent change last week, now any rider who certifies they are disabled will have fees automatically waived. We fundamentally disagree that our policies violate the ADA and will keep improving our products to support everyone’s ability to easily move around their communities.”

Uber also said that by default, wheelchair-accessible (WAV) trips on Uber and Uber Assist trips (available in many major cities around the US) do not have any wait time fees.

“Riders can now voluntarily certify that their disability impacts their ability to board a vehicle within the allotted time,” the statement also said. “Wait time fees will then automatically be waived for the riders who provide this certification.”

The DOJ is asking that Uber be ordered to modify its practices, policies, and procedures in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and for monetary damages to people affected by the wait time fees.

You can read the complaint, below.

[Image via Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

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