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New Jersey Citizen Action v. Riviera Motel Corp.

January 16, 1997

NEW JERSEY CITIZEN ACTION, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
THE RIVIERA MOTEL CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.

Approved for Publication January 17, 1997.

Before Judges Michels, Muir, Jr. and Kleiner. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.j.a.d.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michels

The opinion of the court was delivered by

MICHELS, P.J.A.D.

Defendant Riviera Motel Corporation (correctly known as Riviera Motor Hotel, Inc.), appeals from a judgment of the Law Division that awarded plaintiff New Jersey Citizen Action counsel fees and costs in the total sum of $4,366.20 in this action to obtain compliance with federal and state laws governing accessibility to public accommodations by the disabled.

Plaintiff is a New Jersey not-for-profit corporation, consisting of disabled individuals, organizations dedicated to the rights of the disabled, and organizations whose members include the disabled, including those disabled individuals who live, work, and recreate in and around Bergen County. The organization is essentially an advocacy organization for the disabled whose members have an interest in the accessibility of places of public accommodation.

Plaintiff notified defendant that its motel in Fort Lee, New Jersey, violated laws governing accessibility for the disabled. When remedial action was not forthcoming, plaintiff instituted this action seeking remediation, counsel fees, and costs. Plaintiff alleged that defendant's motel had not been constructed, altered, or modified to be accessible to persons with disabilities in that the entrance barred access by wheelchair users, there was an absence of parking for the disabled, an absence of an accessible room and other architectural barriers. In the First Count of the complaint, plaintiff charged that defendant's failure to render its motel premises accessible to persons with disabilities violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq., New Jersey Handicapped Access Law (HAL), N.J.S.A. 52:32-4, and regulations of the New Jersey Uniform Construction Code, specifically the Barrier Free Design Code (BFDC), N.J.A.C. 5:23-7. In the Second Count, plaintiff charged that defendant's failure to render the motel premises accessible to persons with disabilities violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C.A. § 12181 et seq.

After issue was joined, plaintiff and defendant entered into a stipulation of partial dismissal in which defendant agreed to undertake certain remedial measures sought by plaintiff which were readily achievable within the meaning of 42 U.S.C.A. § 12181. Plaintiff agreed to dismiss with prejudice and without costs and counsel fees all of the state claims under the First Count. Defendant did not agree that plaintiff was entitled to counsel fees and costs with respect to the ADA claims under the Second Count and the parties, therefore, agreed to submit that issue to the court. The precise terms of the stipulation are as follows:

1. The Defendant shall, on or before October 1, 1996, cause one of its motel rooms to be rendered wheelchair accessible by altering it to comply with the ADA Accessibility Guidelines adopted pursuant to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 USC 12181 et seq.

2. The Defendant shall, on or before August 1, 1996, provide two designated handicapped parking spaces, including one with a sixteen foot width, sized and signed in conformance with the ADA and applicable state law.

3. The Defendant shall, on or before August 1, 1996, provide an accessible route of travel from the designated parking spaces to the Defendant's motel office and ground floor, guest rooms. The route of travel shall conform with Title III of the ADA.

4. The Defendant will, on or before August 1, 1996, equip one motel room with a text telephone and visual alarms for the hearing impaired in conformance with Title III of the ADA provided the cost does not exceed $250.00.

5. As to Plaintiff's entitlement to an award of counsel fees and costs, the Parties have reached no agreement. They will seek to negotiate their differences and, failing agreement, shall submit those issues to the Court.

6. Plaintiff dismisses all state law claims, with prejudice and without costs, and without fees, as set forth in Count I.

7. Defendant stipulates that the alterations agreed to herein are "readily achievable" within the meaning of Title III of the ADA.

At the Conclusion of the counsel fee hearing, Judge Lawrence B. Smith in the Law Division held that plaintiff had standing to maintain the ADA action and awarded plaintiff counsel fees of $4,000 and costs of $366.20 for a total of $4,366.20. Defendant appealed.

Defendant seeks a reversal of the judgment awarding plaintiff counsel fees and costs, contending that plaintiff lacks standing to commence a private action under Title III of the ADA. Defendant argues that plaintiff was not "a person aggrieved" within the meaning of the ADA and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it suffered no injury in fact and failed to comply with the administrative prerequisites to a suit under the ADA and the Civil Rights Act. We disagree and affirm. We have carefully considered the record and arguments presented and are satisfied the trial court properly held that plaintiff had standing to maintain this action against defendant under the ADA and that plaintiff was entitled to counsel fees and costs under the ADA.

I.

We turn first to the critical issue of whether plaintiff has standing to maintain an action under the ADA. Standing refers to the plaintiff's ability or entitlement to maintain an action before the court. New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce v. New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Comm'n, 82 N.J. 57, 67, 411 A.2d 168 (1980); Al Walker, Inc. v. Borough of Stanhope, 23 N.J. 657, 660, 130 A.2d 372 (1957). Courts will not entertain matters in which plaintiffs do not have sufficient legal standing. In re Quinlan, 70 N.J. 10, 34, 355 A.2d 647, cert. denied, 429 U.S. 922, 97 S. Ct. 319, 50 L. Ed. 2d 289 (1976); Al Walker, Inc. v. Borough of Stanhope, (supra) , 23 N.J. at 660. In order to possess standing, the plaintiff must have a sufficient stake in the outcome of the litigation, a real adverseness with respect to the subject matter, and there must be a substantial likelihood that the plaintiff will suffer harm in the event of an unfavorable decision. New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce v. New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Comm'n, (supra) , 82 N.J. at 67; Crescent Pk. Tenants Ass'n v. Realty Equities Corp., 58 N.J. 98, 107, 275 A.2d 433 (1971); In re Twp. of Howell, 254 N.J. Super. 411, 416, 603 A.2d 959(App. Div.), certif. denied, 127 N.J. 548, 606 A.2d 362 (1991).

The essential purposes of the standing doctrine in New Jersey. . . . are to assure that the invocation and exercise of judicial power in a given case are appropriate. Further, the relationship of plaintiffs to the subject matter of the litigation and to other parties must be such to generate confidence in the ability of the judicial process to get to the truth of the matter and in the integrity and soundness of the final adjudication. Also, the standing doctrine serves to fulfill the paramount ...


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