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Miraglia v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State Museum

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 24, 2018

MITCHELL MIRAGLIA, an individual, Plaintiff-Appellee, Cross-Appellant
BOARD OF SUPERVISORS OF THE LOUISIANA STATE MUSEUM, incorrectly named as Board of Directors of the Louisiana State Museum; ROBERT WHEAT, in his official capacity as Deputy Director, Defendants-Appellants Cross-Appellees

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

          Before DAVIS, HAYNES, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.


         Mitchell Miraglia sued the Board of Supervisors of the Louisiana State Museum and Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Wheat-whom, for ease, we collectively call the Museum-for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. He sought equitable relief as well as damages. After trial, the district court dismissed Miraglia's equitable claims as moot, awarded him monetary damages, and granted attorneys' fees. Miraglia appeals the dismissal of his equitable claims. The Museum appeals the district court's award of damages and attorneys' fees. We now DISMISS AS MOOT Miraglia's appeal. As for the Museum's appeal, we AFFIRM IN PART and REVERSE AND RENDER IN PART. Miraglia failed to prove a necessary element for monetary damages, so we reverse and render judgment on that claim in favor of the Museum. He is still a prevailing party, however, and thus we affirm the district court's grant of attorneys' fees.

         I. Background

         This lawsuit centers on Miraglia's visit to the Lower Pontalba Building in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The Lower Pontalba Building is a historic building listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is owned by the Louisiana State Museum. The Museum's purpose in operating the Lower Pontalba Building is to "maintain [its] structure and historic nature" so that "future generations" can learn about life in the 1850s; thus, the Lower Pontalba Building's original construction and French doors are preserved by the Museum. However, the Museum also uses the Lower Pontalba Building to generate revenue to support the Museum's activities by renting space in the Lower Pontalba Building to retail tenants.

         Miraglia is a quadriplegic afflicted with cerebral palsy who depends on a motorized wheelchair for movement. In the summer of 2015, Miraglia visited the Lower Pontalba Building to browse some of its retail shops. Once he arrived at the Lower Pontalba Building, Miraglia determined he could not enter the retail stores; if only one of a store's French doors was open, the entrance was potentially too narrow and, regardless of the doors, each had a ramp that was too steep. Miraglia did not attempt to enter and left the Lower Pontalba Building.

         Miraglia sued under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12132, and the Rehabilitation Act ("RA"), 29 U.S.C. § 794. Rather than sue the shop owners, Miraglia focused on the Museum, suing the Museum's Board of Supervisors, as well as the official responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the Museum, Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Wheat. Miraglia alleged that the Museum violated § 12132 and § 794 by failing to rectify multiple architectural features that barred his entry to the Lower Pontalba Building shops. Miraglia sought declaratory and injunctive relief, monetary damages, and attorneys' fees.

         The parties have not disputed that the entrances to the retail stores were inaccessible to Miraglia. The key disputed issue has been what accommodations, if any, the Museum should make. Wheat admitted that the Museum had previously done "nothing" to check for ADA compliance.

         Each side retained an expert to opine on the appropriate accommodations. Miraglia's expert, Nicholas Heybeck, recommended that the Museum raise the sidewalks near shop entrances, install a doorbell system to accommodate door width, and make interior modifications to rectify other barriers. The Museum's expert, Michael Holly, concluded that Heybeck's recommendations were not reasonable accommodations because they would change the historic nature of the Lower Pontalba Building. For example, Holly found that changing a single door would alter the historical nature; that door buzzers could affect the Lower Pontalba Building's visual acceptableness; and raising the sidewalk would impact the Lower Pontalba Building's columns, which would permanently affect the historic character of the Lower Pontalba Building's facade and create water intrusion. Eventually, Holly and Heybeck agreed that five-foot portable ramps for each store would suffice, even if Heybeck still believed his recommendation to raise the sidewalks was the "best engineering solution." Additionally, both experts agreed that installing buzzers that could alert employees to open the second French door leaf would reasonably accommodate the narrow door width and would not alter the Lower Pontalba Building's historic nature.

         After nearly two years of pre-trial wrangling and unable to come to a settlement, the parties pushed toward trial.[1] Then, on the Friday before the Monday trial, the Museum purchased five five-foot portable ramps, buzzers, and buzzer-related signage. At the beginning of the bench trial, they submitted evidence of the purchase and their intent to implement the equipment to the district court. The district court then held a short bench trial.

         Four days later, it issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law. The district court concluded that Miraglia's request for declaratory and injunctive relief was moot because the Museum already purchased the ramps, buzzers, and associated signage and intended to implement them.[2] Though it considered the claims moot, the district court "retain[ed] jurisdiction over [the] matter should [the Museum] default on the representations made in open court at trial." Additionally, the court awarded Miraglia $500 in damages, finding that Miraglia "feels emotional injury when his disability prevents him from partaking in offerings" that the nondisabled public enjoy. Miraglia subsequently moved for reasonable attorneys' fees and costs and expenses, which the court awarded in the amount of $30, 050.35.

         The Museum timely appealed the district court's award of damages and attorneys' fees. Miraglia timely appealed the district court's dismissal of his requests for declaratory and injunctive relief as moot.

         II. Discussion

         A. Declaratory and Injunctive Relief

         We need not address whether Miraglia's equitable claims were moot at the time of trial, because the record and Miraglia's briefing indicates they are now moot. See Staley v. Harris Cty., 485 F.3d 305, 309 (5th Cir. 2007) (en banc) (dismissing a claim as moot due to events subsequent to the trial court's order).

         The Museum argues in its brief, and identifies record evidence confirming, that it has installed signs and buzzers at the various storefronts in question. It has also purchased the ramps and asserted on appeal that they have been given ...

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