by Peter Hall, The Morning Call/TNS | June 22, 2021
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A federal judge denied a request to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit by the mother of a boy with autism who was denied entry to the Disney Store at Lehigh Valley Mall last summer because he could not wear a mask.
U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson denied the Walt Disney Co.’s motion to dismiss the Northampton woman’s lawsuit, finding the allegations cover all of the elements of a valid Americans with Disabilities Act claim. The ruling allows the case to move forward and attorneys for each side to begin gathering evidence.
“We are very pleased with the court’s decision which confirms what we have known all along … civil rights do not disappear during a pandemic,” said Allentown attorney William Mansour. “We believe the court’s decision is definitely an early victory but an important one.”
Attorneys for Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit says the 7-year-old boy, who is identified in the court filing only by his initials, is highly sensitive to touch, especially on his face, like many people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. For that reason, the lawsuit says, his mother decided after experimenting with different face coverings not to force him to wear a mask in public.
When Shea Emanuel took her sons to Lehigh Valley Mall in Whitehall Township in August on a birthday outing for the boy’s younger brother, staff at the Disney Store would not allow them to enter because he was not wearing a mask. Emanuel explained to the store manager that her son has autism, which prevents him from wearing a face covering, but the manager refused to allow the boy into the store, the lawsuit claims.
The experience was humiliating for Emanuel and her sons because they were turned away in front of about a dozen other patrons waiting. Her elder son, “was especially distraught since he was unable to fully comprehend why he was not allowed to enter the Whitehall Disney Store,” the suit says.
The state masking requirement in place at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic included an exception for people who were unable to wear a mask due to physical or mental disability. There was no requirement to prove a disability.
The ADA bars discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation, such as stores and requires owners to make “reasonable modifications” to policies, practices or procedures when necessary to serve people with disabilities.
Disney argued that the request to make an exception to its mask police was not reasonable or necessary for Emanuel’s son to have access to the Disney Store. It also argued that the policy was necessary for safe operation and that waiving it would pose a threat to the health and safety of employees and customers.
Leeson found that under the circumstances alleged in the lawsuit, Emanuel laid out a sufficient claim that the request was reasonable because Emanuel’s son was not infected with COVID-19 and did not have any symptoms of the virus and the number of customers in the store that day was limited. He also found that Emanuel made a sufficient claim that the exception to the mask policy was necessary by alleging her son’s autism spectrum disorder made it so unpleasant to wear a mask that he would pull it off after a few seconds.
The lawsuit seeks a court order barring the Disney Co. from enforcing its mask policy against people with disabilities covered by the ADA, and attorney fees.
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