ALLENTOWN, Pennsylvania – A federal judge denied a motion to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit from the mother of a boy with autism who was denied access to the Disney store in Lehigh Valley Mall last summer for unable to wear a mask.
US District Judge Joseph F. Leeson denied Walt Disney Co.’s motion to dismiss the Northampton woman’s lawsuit, ruling that the allegations covered all elements of a valid claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The verdict allows the case to move forward and lawyers for each side to begin gathering evidence.
“We are delighted with the court’s decision, which confirms what we knew all along … civil rights don’t go away during a pandemic,” said Allentown’s attorney William Mansour. “We believe the court’s decision is definitely an early win, but an important one.”
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Disney’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit states that the 7-year-old boy, identified only by his initials on the court record, is very sensitive to touch, especially on his face, like many people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. For this reason, the lawsuit says, after experimenting with various face coverings, his mother decided not to force him to wear a mask in public.
When Shea Emanuel took her sons to Lehigh Valley Mall in Whitehall Township on a birthday outing for the boy’s younger brother in August, Disney Store staff allowed them in because he wasn’t wearing a mask. Emanuel explained to the store manager that their son had autism, which prevents him from wearing a face covering, but the manager refused to let the boy into the store, the lawsuit says.
The experience was humiliating for Emanuel and her sons as they were turned away in front of about a dozen other waiting guests. Her older son “was particularly disturbed as he couldn’t quite understand why he wasn’t allowed to enter the Whitehall Disney Store,” the lawsuit said.
The state mask requirement at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic included an exception for people who were unable to wear a mask due to a physical or mental disability. A disability did not have to be proven.
The ADA prohibits disability discrimination in public places such as shops and requires owners to make “reasonable changes” to policies, practices, or procedures if necessary to serve people with disabilities.
Disney argued that the request to make an exception to its masked police force was not appropriate 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 not doing it would pose a risk to the health and safety of employees and customers.
Leeson noted that in the circumstances alleged in the lawsuit, Emanuel made a sufficient claim that the request was reasonable given that Emanuel’s son was not infected with COVID-19 and had no symptoms of the virus, and the number of customers in the store was day limited. He also found that Emanuel sufficiently argued that the mask policy exception was necessary, claiming that her son’s autism spectrum disorder made it so uncomfortable to wear a mask that he would peel it off after a few seconds.
The lawsuit seeks a court order preventing Disney Co. from enforcing its mask policy against people with disabilities covered by the ADA and legal fees.
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