Disney Sued For Barring Maskless Autistic Boy From Store

By Mike LaSusa
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Law360 (September 22, 2020, 8:09 PM EDT) -- The Walt Disney Co. violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it barred a 7-year-old autistic boy from one of its stores amid the COVID-19 pandemic because he wasn't wearing a mask, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Pennsylvania federal court.

Shea Emanuel said Disney was wrong to deny her son entry last month at a Disney Store in a mall in Whitehall, Pennsylvania. Emanuel said her son, called N.B. in the suit, can't wear a mask due to his autism.

"Plaintiff attempted, on several occasions, to test N.B.'s tolerance for wearing different face coverings," she said. "This effort proved stressful and, ultimately, unsuccessful because the sensation of the covering on N.B's face created a very unpleasant experience for him. As a result, plaintiff decided that she would not force N.B. to wear a face covering in public settings."

Emanuel said Pennsylvania's statewide mask order includes a carveout for people whose disabilities prevent them from being able to wear a mask. But she said Disney refused to exempt her son from the store's mask-wearing policy, even though he had no COVID-19 symptoms and promised to abide by health officials' other safety guidance.

"Plaintiff and her sons were humiliated by defendant's act of denying them entry to the Whitehall Disney Store, especially since it occurred in front of about a dozen other people who were still waiting in line," Emanuel said. "N.B., in particular, was especially distraught since he was unable to fully comprehend why he was not allowed to enter the Whitehall Disney Store."

Emanuel is seeking a court order forcing Disney to make an exemption to its mask policy for people whose ADA-covered disability prevents them from being able to wear masks. She's also seeking attorney fees and costs.

Emanuel's attorney, William P. Mansour of Kitay Law Offices, told Law360 on Tuesday that the suit is aimed in part at ensuring businesses make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

"Many employers, large and small, are not aware of what their obligations are under the ADA when it comes to enforcing mask policies," Mansour said.

A Disney spokesperson told Law360 Wednesday that the company's stores abide by the law. 

"We are always focused on the health and safety of our guests and employees, which is why we implemented a number of enhanced measures, including a face covering requirement, at our stores during this unprecedented time," the spokesperson said.

The suit against Disney follows other similar actions filed recently in Pennsylvania federal court.

In July, the parents of several children with disabilities such as autism sued three Pittsburgh-area amusement parks, claiming their mandatory mask policies related to COVID-19 violate the ADA. The case is ongoing, court records show.

Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle grocers is also facing a suit in which a customer has argued that under the ADA, the chain can't use the public health threat of the COVID-19 pandemic to turn away customers with disabilities that render them unable to wear masks unless the customers pose a direct threat.

Nike Inc. is facing a somewhat different mask-related ADA case in California state court, where a hearing-impaired person is alleging a policy requiring employees to wear opaque Nike-branded masks discriminates against deaf and hard of hearing people who rely on lip reading.

Emanuel is represented by William P. Mansour of Kitay Law Offices.

Counsel information for Disney wasn't immediately available Tuesday.

The case is Emanuel v. The Walt Disney Co., case number 5:20-cv-04639, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

--Additional reporting by Joyce Hanson, Lauren Berg and Matthew Santoni. Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

Update: This article has been updated to include comment from Disney.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

EMANUEL v. THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY


Case Number

5:20-cv-04639

Court

Pennsylvania Eastern

Nature of Suit

Civil Rights: Americans with Disabilities - Other

Judge

JOSEPH F. LEESON, JR

Date Filed

September 22, 2020

Companies

Government Agencies

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