PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin

Docket No. 00-24

DISABILITY LAW
Is a Golf Cart a "Reasonable Modification" Under the ADA?

by Phyllis Coleman
Phyllis Coleman is a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and co-author with Robert M. Jarvis of Sports Law: Cases and Materials (West 1999).

Case at a Glance
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability. This case represents the first attempt by a disabled athlete to use the ADA to require a professional sports association to modify its rules to accommodate him. The Supreme Court must decide whether the Act applies and, if so, whether the requested modification is reasonable or a fundamental alteration of the game.

Argument Date: January 17, 2001
From: The Ninth Circuit

Editor's Note: The respondent's brief in this case was not available by PREVIEW's deadline.

Enacted in 1990, the ADA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., prohibits discrimination based on disability. Title III governs places of public accommodations and requires that an owner or operator make reasonable modifications unless they would be a fundamental alteration of the nature of the goods or services provided. In this case, the Supreme Court faces the question of whether the ADA compels the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) to waive its tournament "walking rule" for a disabled golfer or whether allowing him to use a cart would "fundamentally alter" the game.

Issues
Does Title III of the ADA apply to athletic events held at places of public accommodation? And would requiring the PGA Tour to waive its "no cart" rule for a professional golfer whose disability makes it difficult for him to walk fundamentally alter the nature of its competition?

Facts
For golfer Casey Martin, a "congenital, degenerative circulatory disorder" makes walking painful and subjects him to risk of further serious injury. Consequently, in 1997, Martin asked for special permission to use a cart during PGA-sponsored tournaments. When his request was denied based on the PGA's "walking rule," Martin filed suit claiming violations of the ADA.

While this was the earliest attempt to apply the ADA to a professional sports organization, it was not the first time a disabled golfer sought waiver of the no-cart rule. In 1987, for example, based on their individual medical conditions, two golfers asked to ride. Neither went to court when their requests were denied. The difference in this case is the ADA.

Agreeing that the PGA had failed to comply with the Act, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon issued a preliminary injunction on Jan. 30, 1998. As a result, Martin was allowed to ride, and his score earned him a place on the 1998 Nike Tour. However, although he won one tournament, he failed to qualify for the more prestigious regular PGA competition. And, while he barely made the cutoff for a tour card in 2000, early in December of this year, Martin missed qualifying for 2001 by one stroke.

So far, he has done better in court.

The PGA, with 23,000 members, is the world's largest sports organization. U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin concluded that, as a "commercial enterprise" whose purpose is to generate income, it was neither a private nonprofit entity nor exempt from the ADA. The judge also rejected the argument that because spectators were barred from the playing area, at least that part of the course was private. He postponed until trial the question whether Title I, which involves employment, applied. He denied the PGA's motion for summary judgment, and granted Martin partial summary judgment. Martin v. PGA Tour, Inc., 984 F. Supp. 1320 (D. Or. 1998).

Judge Coffin disposed of the Title I claim early in the six-day bench trial by deciding Martin was not a PGA employee. But he held that, in light of Martin's individual circumstances and disorder, permitting him to use a cart was a reasonable modification under Title III, which prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation. The Rules of Golf do not mandate walking, and carts are allowed in two of the PGA's four types of tournaments, so waiving the rule for Martin would not "fundamentally alter" the nature of its tournaments. Consequently, the judge issued a permanent injunction ordering the PGA to permit Martin to ride in competitions for which he is eligible, as well as in any qualifying rounds. Martin v. PGA Tour, Inc., 994 F. Supp. 1242 (D. Or. 1998).

Throughout the litigation, the PGA has steadfastly asserted the purpose of the no-cart rule is to inject a fatigue factor into the sport. Moreover, claiming it alone can set the rules that either define who can play or control how the game is played, the PGA maintained any modification would be an invalid, fundamental alteration. The association argued that, rather than deferring to those involved in the sport to establish the substantive rules—defined as those intended to affect the outcome—the lower court improperly shifted this important role to judges. When this argument was rebuffed, the PGA appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

On March 6, 2000, in an opinion by Circuit Judge William C. Canby, Jr., a three-judge panel affirmed the lower court. Martin v. PGA Tour, Inc., 204 F.3d 994 (9th Cir. 2000).

First, the Ninth Circuit held Title III applied because, under the language of the Act, even if during a tournament the restricted "inside the ropes" area is not being used as a "place of exercise or recreation," it is a "place of exhibition or entertainment." Second, again siding with Judge Coffin, the court concluded fatigue caused by walking is "not significant under normal circumstances." Further, the PGA itself conceded competition areas where amateur sporting events occur may be places of public accommodation under Title III. The Ninth Circuit declined the invitation to "draw a line beyond which the performance of athletes becomes so excellent that a competition restricted to their level deprives its situs of the character of a public accommodation."

Thus, permitting Martin to use a cart is "reasonable" as it solves the golfer's problem without unduly burdening the PGA Tour, which uses carts in other situations. The modification was necessary because Martin could not walk the course. Walking is not "fundamental to the competition" and, because of his disability, allowing Martin to use a cart would not give him an unfair advantage.

The PGA decided to appeal. On May 15, 2000, it applied to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to extend the deadline to file the petition for certiorari. Justice O'Connor, an avid golfer, granted an additional 30 days. The petition for certiorari was filed on July 5, 2000. Respondent's brief in opposition was filed on August 4, 2000. The reply brief was filed on August 16, 2000. The PGA's petition was granted on Sept. 26, 2000. PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 121 S.Ct. 30 (2000).

Oral arguments are set for January 17, 2001.

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