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Justice Department sues Uber for charging ‘wait-time’ fees to passengers with disabilities

The Uber Technologies application on a smartphone. The Justice Department is suing the company. (Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg News)
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The Justice Department on Wednesday sued Uber alleging a “pattern” of discrimination violating the Americans With Disabilities Act, signaling that the Biden administration is more aggressively targeting tech companies’ civil rights records.

The suit accuses the company of charging “wait-time” fees, which it began implementing in a number of cities in 2016, to passengers who need more time to enter the car due to disabilities. Uber did not “make reasonable modifications” to its policy for passengers who need more than the allotted two minutes to enter a car, according to the suit filed in Northern California district court. There are many reasons people may require additional time, the DOJ argues, including needing to break down a wheelchair or walker before entering the car.

“People with disabilities deserve equal access to all areas of community life, including the private transportation services provided by companies like Uber,” Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a statement.

The agency is seeking to fine Uber and for the court to force the company to modify its wait-time policy. DOJ also is seeking damages paid to disabled people subjected to wait-time fees.

“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 spokesman Noah Edwardsen said in a statement.

The suit is perhaps the most significant civil rights action that the Biden administration has brought against a tech giant, coming alongside a fleet of presidential nominations stacking key regulatory agencies with advocates who have challenged Silicon Valley’s track record on discrimination. Two top leaders at the Justice Department, Clarke and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, had challenged Uber, Facebook and other major tech companies in their previous roles at civil rights organizations.

Clarke said the suit sends a “powerful message” to Uber and other transportation services, adding that they “must ensure equal access for all people, including those with disabilities.”

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Uber particularly has drawn scrutiny over its labor practices, and in 2017, settled with the FTC over charges that it misled potential drivers about how much they could earn working for the company.

Uber has been in “active discussions” with the Justice Department to address the concerns about passengers with disabilities “before this surprising and disappointing lawsuit,” Edwardsen said. The company made a change last week that will allow riders to certify they are disabled to automatically waive the fees, Edwardsen said.

Edwardsen said the company refunds wait-time fees for disabled riders. The DOJ disputes that this policy is enforced appropriately, arguing that the company has denied refunds to some affected passengers, even when they have informed the company that the delay is related to their disability.

Blake Reid, a clinical professor who specializes in tech policy and disability law at Colorado Law, called the DOJ’s suit a “slam dunk case of discrimination against people with disabilities.”

“It’s a symptom of how some Silicon Valley companies operate,” Reid said. “They like to tout the benefits of their products for accessibility, but they don’t always follow through on hard work to make sure that products are actually accessible.”

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Uber has faced controversy for years over its treatment of passengers with disabilities. A 2018 report by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest said Uber, Lyft and other ride-haling services are effectively “useless” for people with disabilities because there aren’t enough vehicles equipped to accommodate wheelchairs. The report said that when riders summoned wheelchair-accessible vehicles from Uber and Lyft, the wait was more than four times longer than for regular service. In 2014, an advocacy group for the blind sued the company over discriminating against passengers with service dogs.

The complaint details the experiences of a 52-year-old quadriplegic, referred to as “Passenger A,” who relied on Uber to transport her from her apartment to a rehabilitation center. With the assistance of a nurse, it took the woman at least five minutes to transfer to the back seat of the vehicle, and store her wheelchair in the car’s trunk. After realizing in August 2020 that Uber was consistently charging her a wait-time fee, she tried to contact the company through tweets and emails to customer service. When she eventually heard back from an employee, she was told the fees were automatic and the company couldn’t prevent them from being charged. She has not received a refund from the company for the wait times.

“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 said.

A 34-year-old man with cerebral palsy, called “Passenger B” in the lawsuit, relied on Uber to occasionally commute to work or visit friends and family. The man often required the driver’s help in packing up his wheelchair, which often takes him more than two minutes. He noticed the wait-time fees on his receipts around Sept. 2018 and contacted customer service. The company initially refunded him, but after he received a certain number, an Uber customer service rep told him he had hit a limit and would receive no more.

Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.