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The Cubs are facing a federal review of the Wrigley Field renovations

The Cubs tried to take advantage of their disabled fans. Then one fan caught them.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Chicago Cubs Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

One of the largest projects undertaken by the Ricketts family since purchasing the Chicago Cubs has been the renovation of Wrigley Field. The $550 million project was supposed to bring the aging ballpark, now more than a century old, into the twenty-first century, albeit not without some controversy. Increasingly, however, the project has run into problems.

Earlier this year, Tom Ricketts said that the project had gone “around 100%” over budget, suggesting that the Ricketts family had spent almost a billion dollars on the renovations. To make matters worse, the high cost of the renovations is purportedly one reason the team is shopping star third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant this offseason.

At the same time, it’s important to note that the increasing cost in time and money of the renovation project is, at least in some part, a problem of the Cubs’ own making. You see, back in late 2017, a disabled Cubs fan sued the team, alleging that not only did the renovations not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the renovations actually made the team’s ADA noncompliance worse.

Wrigley Field, alleged plaintiff David Cerda, was more friendly to disabled fans before the renovations. That case, Cerda v. Chicago Cubs Baseball Club, details how Cerda, a Cubs fan who suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, was unable to attend Cubs games beginning in 2017 because the team removed wheelchair-accessible seats from the right- and left-field bleachers. You can read the complaint here: Complaint - Cerda v. Cubs.pdf.

The Cubs filed a Motion to Dismiss, asking the court to dismiss the case without a trial. The team argued that Cerda had suffered no injury. Specifically, the Cubs argued that Cerda wasn’t entitled to an unobstructed view of the game, and therefore suffered no injury by being limited to an obstructed view.

Further, the team argued that the lack of wheelchair-accessible seating in luxury boxes and luxury suites wasn’t a real injury for Cerda because there was a waiting list of people ahead of him, and therefore he wasn’t harmed because he wouldn’t be allowed access anyway. Additionally, the team argued that the renovation, when completed after 2019, would include more ADA-compliant and wheelchair-accessible seats.

Plaintiff does not face an imminent injury with regard to the alleged shortage of Accessible Seating in the entire ballpark on Opening Day 2018 because he has neither encountered a shortage of Accessible Seats nor does he have actual knowledge of such a shortage. Moreover, Wrigley Field’s compliance with the ADA requirements for the number and location of Accessible Seats cannot be assessed in the middle of this renovation when many Accessible Seats have yet to be installed. The Second Declaration of Carl Rice makes clear that after the renovation is completed in 2019, there will be more Accessible Seats in Wrigley Field than required by the 2010 Standards in more locations than ever before. Plaintiff does not know and does not allege how many Accessible Seats will be provided after the renovation is completed in 2019.

Finally, the team argued that because all of the wheelchair accessible seats would have been sold out anyway even had more been provided, because the team is a popular draw.

Under the ADA regulations, the Cubs were required to provide a minimum of 36 wheelchair-accessible seats for the first 5,000 patrons, plus one additional wheelchair-accessible seat for each 200, or fraction thereof, seats over 5000. That would require the Cubs to provide not less than 217 wheelchair accessible seats. However, the Cubs were unable to tell the Court how many wheelchair-accessible seats were present at Wrigley, or were planned even after the renovations were finished. The Cubs’ own discovery answers identified only 159 wheelchair-accessible seats after the renovations were complete. During the 2018 season, only 42 wheelchair-accessible seats were available. For these reasons, the court denied the team’s request to dismiss the case in this Order.

There’s no argument that the team, initially, skimped on wheelchair-accessible seating, saying that they (mistakenly) believed that the stadium was exempt from modern ADA standards because of its age. But, frankly, that argument rings false. What the Cubs are saying, in essence, is that they deprived access to disabled fans as a cost-saving measure.

Even if the team could reasonably argue that the ADA didn’t require a minimum number of wheelchair-accessible seats - and, to be clear, the 2010 ADA Guidelines are crystal clear that the team was required to conform to the ADA in its renovations - the fact that the team evidently thought that 42 wheelchair accessible seats in a 41,649-seat venue is nothing short of appalling. In other words, the team reserved one in every thousand seats for disabled fans. Twelve million Americans use a wheelchair, cane, or walker, and the team’s callous disregard for its disabled fans is second only to its noxious argument that Cerda didn’t suffer an injury because he wasn’t able to buy a seat.

This, then, is one reason why the Wrigley Field renovation has gone so far over budget. The team has postponed completing the renovations whilst the United States District Attorney conducts a review of the stadium for ADA compliance. The way the Cubs have done so, however, is perhaps most appalling of all. Per the Chicago Tribune:

The Cubs were planning to add about 40 more accessible seats to the upper deck before opening day, according to sources familiar with the matter. That work is now on hold, pending the Justice Department review.

Cerda said he welcomed the government’s ADA review but said it should not allow the team to delay installing more accessible seating.

“They don’t have a right to put anything on hold,” Cerda said. “Opening day 2020, you’d better be ADA compliant.”

In other words, the team has decided to continue to prevent disabled fans from accessing games whilst it “voluntarily” submits to a review of the number of wheelchair-accessible seats in the ballpark undertaken only because it was sued for having far too few wheelchair-accessible seats. In so doing, the team is punishing disabled fans for complaining justifiably about their inability to enjoy a baseball game like anyone else, which is the entire point of the legal framework of the ADA.

This saga provides needed context for the Ricketts family’s claims that the renovations to Wrigley Field have taxed the family’s resources. This financial injury suffered by Cubs ownership - to the extent a family worth $4.5 billion suffers any real financial injury at all - is entirely self-inflicted. The Cubs tried to skirt a law designed to ensure equal access to public venues, using denial of access to disabled fans as a way to save money. They were caught, sued, and then argued that denying a disabled person access to a baseball game isn’t a real harm because disabled fans wouldn’t go anyway.

Only after a court ruled differently did the team finally submit to a federal review, doing so in a manner designed to harm even more disabled people in the process. And now, the team is using the cost overruns from this self-inflicted ableist misadventure as a justification for potentially trading the team’s best player. It’s all a toxic mess, and one which raises legitimate questions about how much the team - and the league, for that matter - really care about their disabled fans.