UM law report: Montana vacation rentals should adapt for disabled tourists

Owners of Montana vacation rentals need to start considering ways they can welcome guests with disabilities, say three University of Montana law students who conducted a series of research projects on the Americans with Disabilities Act and its role in vacation rental properties and lawsuits.

The act, which passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination based on disability, including in employment settings, state and local government services and public-serving businesses.

Accommodating guests with disabilities isn’t just a legal consideration, but also good business, the students discovered.

Vacation rental properties like Airbnb and VRBO are growing platforms for temporary housing across the nation, but how the ADA applies to the rentals was unclear. Because of the students’ research, there’s a better understanding of the restrictions and requirements.

“What we’re trying to do is give these students, from the Rural Institute perspective, real life opportunities to do very quick research on a legal issue that they may or may not come in contact with later in their career,” said Martin Blair, executive director for UM Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities.

“My first hunch is to say that the majority of vacation rentals in Montana are smaller operations. But who knows, maybe larger ski resorts or areas surrounding Glacier National Park host large vacation rental operations,” Thornton said. “If they do, they should be prepared to comply with the ADA.” (NPS/Amy Vanderbilt)

Joshua Thornton, a second-year student in UM’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law from Bismarck, N.D., conducted research on the ways the ADA applies to vacation rental properties.

He found that the act applies if the property has five or more rooms to rent. The exemption under the ADA helps distinguish between public, large-scale operations using the property as a vacation rental business and small-scale entrepreneurs looking for additional income, Thornton said.

“My understanding is that the five-room exemption is allowed because it draws an arbitrary line between prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and a right to privacy that happens to allow discrimination,” Thornton said.

With service animals, Thornton said that vacation rentals should expect to provide accommodations; as the industry grows, Montana could become a major host.

“My first hunch is to say that the majority of vacation rentals in Montana are smaller operations. But who knows, maybe larger ski resorts or areas surrounding Glacier National Park host large vacation rental operations,” Thornton said. “If they do, they should be prepared to comply with the ADA.”

Lillian Alvernaz,  a recent UM law school graduate from Glasgow, explored the growing number of “drive-by” lawsuits, focusing specifically on the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah.

Drive-by lawsuits occur when attorneys and plaintiffs sue businesses for rapid settlements due to minor access barriers, Blair said, with many lawsuits mentioning that accessibility in general was difficult. According to the report, this could be access to bathroom sinks and soap dispensers as well as parking and ramps.

Lillian Alvernaz

“They are problematic. Some business owners have to shut down because they cannot afford litigation costs or settlement. At the same time, those disabled have legitimate claims and the ADA should be complied with,” Alvernaz said.

The research found that Colorado and Utah are the only states in this region to have had these lawsuits, and a majority were filed by one or two law firms.

“It tends to be just a few law firms in the country,” Blair said. “The purpose is not to make life better for people with disabilities as much as it is to line the pockets of these attorneys, from my perspective.”

Joshua Thornton

Abbey Eckstein, a third-year law student from Crawford, Colo., compiled a list of law resources for disability-related legal issues that is currently being used by the Rocky Mountain ADA Technical Assistance Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. The organization helped fund these rapid research projects along with UM Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities.

The institute helps improve the lives of those in Montana with disabilities living in rural areas through research, training and services.

With more businesses popping up and the rise of new industries appear, the legal issues that come with them can be difficult to define. These rapid reports can help answer those questions.

Abbey Eckstein

“This is important research because ‘gig economy’ vacation rentals like Airbnb and VRBO are growing enterprises. New businesses should not be exempt from the law,” Thornton said.

Contact Missoula Current reporter Mari Hall by email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com .

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