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Can You Refuse Customers in Poor Health?

A Florida court's decision supports a fitness center's right to exclude members from activity based on their health status.

A number of fitness facilities have been faced with the issue of whether they could permissibly exclude certain individuals from participation in various activities based on those individuals' medical conditions. Most often, these issues arise when such individuals are identified by facilities during pre-participation screenings. The question centers principally on the exclusion of identifiable individuals from participation, or the placement of limitations on activity in light of those legal protections provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and similar laws and regulations at the state level. Even though the ADA and various regulations adopted thereunder permit exclusion of individuals from participation in various activities based on their potential risk of injury to others, and while the law's terms and the regulations allow the implementation of safety requirements, the ADA does not specifically provide guidance as to the exclusion of individuals from participation based on their own health status. The issue boils down to whether individuals may permissibly be excluded from activity based on the potential threat that participation may cause to their own safety.

Support in the courts

A relatively recent decision from the state of Florida might provide some legal support for the exclusion of individuals from participation in various fitness activities based on their health status. In this case from the United States District of the Southern District of Florida, Miami Division [Larsen v. Carnival Corp. Inc. (2003), 242 F.Supp. 2nd 1333], the plaintiff was a paraplegic who used a motorized wheelchair and suffered from obstructive sleep apnea, morbid obesity and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He sought to vacation on the defendants' cruise line in January 2001. In advance of the planned vacation, the plaintiff submitted a special requirements information sheet to the cruise line that indicated, among other things, that he used a Bi-Pap machine for his pulmonary difficulties. However, once on the ship, his Bi-Pap machine was not functioning properly, and he needed a replacement. The cruise line did not have one to give him. Consequently, the ship's doctor decided to disembark the plaintiff for medical reasons, since no replacement Bi-Pap machine was readily available at that time, and the ship was scheduled to depart. Although the plaintiff offered to sign a waiver and requested that he be allowed to continue with the ship, the cruise line followed its doctor's medical decision.

The plaintiff ultimately filed suit, contending that his rights under the ADA were violated. The court considered the various arguments, and determined that the regulations adopted by the Department of Justice under the ADA made it clear that while eligibility criteria "that singles out persons with disabilities for exclusion may not be utilized to exclude those individuals from participation in various accommodations, ... neutral eligibility criteria could be used as part of a screening process." In this regard, the court noted that the regulations provided that, "A public accommodation may, however, impose neutral rules and criteria that screen out, or tend to screen out, individuals with disabilities, if the criteria are necessary for the safe operation of the public accommodation. Examples of safety qualifications that would be justifiable in appropriate circumstances would include height requirements for certain amusement park rides or a requirement that all participants in a recreational rafting competition be able to meet a necessary level of swimming proficiency. Safety requirements must be based on actual risks and not on speculation, stereotypes or generalizations about individuals with disabilities."

Based on these regulations, the court determined that "it is abundantly clear, based upon undisputed, objective medical evidence in the record, that the decision to disembark ... [the plaintiff] was based upon a reasonable concern for safety, rather than mere speculation, stereotypes or generalizations about his disability." Therefore, the court ruled that, "after careful review of the parties' submissions and the relevant law, the court finds that the disembarkation of ... [the plaintiff] was based on neutral eligibility criteria and on actual, medically recognized risks."

Like the situation in this case, fitness facilities are sometimes faced with the decision of whether to exclude individuals from participation based on their medical conditions, or to limit such participants' activities in some manner. So long as these decisions are based on objective, neutrally derived criteria, and are not used for the purposes of discriminating against individuals with disabilities or illnesses, it appears that these decisions may now have some precedence, given the ruling in this case.

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