About the 2020 Competition
The Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court Competition final arguments, part of the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison Moot Court Program, are the culmination of a three-round elimination competition in appellate advocacy. This year, 73 students entered the competition. In the qualifying round, held during the fall semester, students briefed one of two issues on behalf of either the appellant or the appellee and presented their positions in oral arguments before panels composed of alumni practitioners and professors.
On the strength of their brief and oral argument scores, 16 competitors advanced to the spring semifinal rounds. There, they again briefed and argued a side of the same case. In the final round, the two students with the highest scores on each of the two issues in the spring competition will present their final arguments to a distinguished panel of judges. These judges then will award the Lawrence S. Greenbaum Prize for the best oral presentation in the final round. The best final-round brief will be recognized by Professor Daniel C. Richman, the Paul J. Kellner Professor of Law; Ilene Strauss, director of Legal Writing and Moot Court Programs; and this year’s Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court director, Emily Gerry ’20.
2020 marks the 94th anniversary of the Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court, founded at Columbia Law School in 1925 by the Story Inn, a chapter of the legal fraternity Phi Delta Phi. The competition is named in honor of Harlan Fiske Stone 1898, who was a member of the Story Inn while a student at the Law School. Stone was named dean of Columbia Law School in 1910. He served in that capacity until 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge appointed him attorney general of the United States. He was named to the Supreme Court of the United States in the following year, and was elevated to Chief Justice in 1941.
The Case: Chen v. Secret Saturdays Inc.
Secret Saturdays, Inc. (“Secret Saturdays”) is a private corporation founded in September 2016 by Anthony Stewart, who now serves as the company’s chief executive officer (CEO). Secret Saturdays arranges high-end “pop-up” dinners that take place in upscale homes throughout the state of Virginia. Secret Saturdays works with professional chefs to prepare multicourse experimental dinners. The company then pairs these chefs with homeowners to arrange the event together with one of Secret Saturdays’ event planners. Secret Saturdays dinners take place every Saturday. Each dinner is a special event, cooked by a different chef and hosted at a different location.
Secret Saturdays offers the commercial website https://eig2111.wixsite.com/secretsaturdays. Interested diners can sign up for an email mailing list on the home-page of Secret Saturdays’ website, which includes basic logistical information about how the dinner service works. Emails are sent out only to members of the mailing list on the first day of every month. Emails sent to registered diners contain links to pages of the Secret Saturdays website detailing the offerings of the four or five dinners to be held that month. Each “Menu Page” is hosted on the Secret Saturdays website but is not linked to from the homepage. Menu Pages typically include an overview of the menu to be served, as well as logistics about how to get to the dinner location. The pages sometimes include videos discussing what to expect at the event and relaying information such as the dress code. Information about the services that Secret Saturdays provides is exclusively published online.
Tickets to Secret Saturdays dinners are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and different venues have different seating capacities. Tickets are exclusively available for purchase online through the Menu Page sent out over email, and no money is exchanged at the venue itself.
In January 2017, Ella Chen, a community organizer for disability rights based in Honolulu, Hawaii, heard about Secret Saturdays from a friend. Ms. Chen has been legally blind since birth due to a genetic condition. Intrigued by the Secret Saturdays concept, she attempted to access the Secret Saturdays website using screen reader technology. On her first visit, she encountered redundant links, i.e., a long list of unnecessary links that make it difficult to navigate the website via a screen reader. Ms. Chen sent an email to Secret Saturdays explaining that its website had “major accessibility issues” and suggesting that it rectify its accessibility problems.
In May 2017, after trying to access the Secret Saturdays website again, Chen had dinner with Steven Ross, co-director of the Disability Network, an advocacy organization for people with disabilities. Mr. Ross has been blind since age 18 due to a genetic condition. Mr. Ross was unfamiliar with Secret Saturdays but had extensive experience filing lawsuits against businesses for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They discussed the value of bringing legal action against a non-ADA compliant business.
Following this conversation, Mr. Ross accessed the Secret Saturdays website on May 8, 2017. He described the difficulties in navigating the website, including the lack of alternative text (text describing image content) and redundant links. However, he attributed some of this difficulty to his new screen reading software. The next month, Mr. Ross wrote a letter to Secret Saturdays CEO Anthony Stewart, inviting the company to meet with Disability Network to negotiate changes to Secret Saturdays’ policies and practices. Mr. Ross stated that he would consider litigation if he did not hear from Mr. Stewart by September 7, 2017. During the last weekend of June 2017, Ross again tried to access the Secret Saturdays website with his sighted granddaughter. Ross could not find the enrollment form for the waiting list and could not submit the form without his granddaughter’s help.
At the beginning of August 2017, Mr. Ross received an email from Secret Saturdays that linked to a webpage containing the websites for the month (“August Menus”). Mr. Ross’s granddaughter and Mr. Ross examined the August Menus page and found it “just as inaccessible.” The August Menus page contained a video that relayed information about the timing, content, and dress code of one of the dinners. Mr. Ross’s granddaughter confirmed that there was no closed captioning. Mr. Ross decided to reach out to Jennifer Gomez, a deputy director at Disability Network who is hearing-impaired.
Ms. Gomez had previously attended a Secret Saturdays dinner as the guest of a friend in May 2017. Two months later, she enrolled in the Secret Saturdays mailing list. After hearing Mr. Ross’s account of an inaccessible video, she accessed the URL for August Menus on August 28, 2017, but by this time, the August Menus page had been removed from the website. Ms. Gomez removed herself from the Secret Saturdays mailing list on August 30, 2017.
On September 1, 2017, Chen, Ross, and Gomez sued Secret Saturdays, alleging that Secret Saturdays and its website had violated the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. and seeking an injunction and recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs. Secret Saturdays moved for summary judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, arguing that (i) Plaintiffs’ claims were moot given subsequent changes to the website, (ii) Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring a claim, and (iii) the ADA did not apply to the Secret Saturdays website. The district court held that Plaintiffs’ claims were not moot and that Plaintiffs did not lack standing, but granted summary judgment for Secret Saturdays as to the applicability of the ADA to Secret Saturdays’ website. The court held that the website was neither a place of public accommodation in and of itself nor a good, service, facility, privilege, advantage, or accommodation provided by a place of public accommodation. Plaintiffs appealed the district court’s order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Secret Saturdays filed a cross-appeal seeking review of the decision on mootness and standing.
1. Whether the claim brought by Plaintiffs Ella Chen, Steven Ross, and Jennifer Gomez under 42 U.S.C. § 12188, Subchapter III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, is moot.
2. Whether each plaintiff has standing to bring a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 12188.
3. Whether Secret Saturdays Inc. has denied Plaintiffs the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation under Title III of ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.