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Deaf Californians Hit Nike With Suit Over Covid-19 Mask Policy

July 31, 2020, 6:09 PM

Nike Inc.'s policy requiring employees at its California retail stores to wear masks discriminates against customers who are deaf or hard of hearing by preventing them from lipreading, according to a proposed class action filed in San Francisco.

The company’s policy allegedly requires salespeople to wear opaque masks that are supplied by Nike when they interact with customers.

These masks create unique communication problems for shoppers who are deaf or hard of hearing, because they muffle speech and block visualization of the mouth area and facial expressions, the suit says.

According to the suit, the current policy violates state and federal law by excluding deaf people from obtaining equal access to Nike’s services.

Deaf Nike customers face embarrassing, demeaning situations when they aren’t able to ask for assistance or interact with sales associates, the complaint says. Lead plaintiff Cali Bunn says she attempted to shop at a Nike store in San Diego, but had an upsetting experience when she was unable to communicate with the store employees, all of whom had their mouths covered.

This isn’t the first suit alleging disability discrimination based on mask mandates. Requirements in other parts of the country have given rise to claims under state and federal law, including a series of complaints filed against grocery store operator Giant Eagle Inc., based on its mandate that customers wear masks inside its Pennsylvania stores.

Causes of Action: Americans with Disabilities Act; Unruh Civil Rights Act; California Disabled Persons Act.

Relief: Declaratory and injunctive relief; damages; attorneys’ fees and costs.

Potential Class Size: Around 3 million Californians who are deaf or hard of hearing, with a sub-class of those who have shopped or desire to shop at a Nike store in California since the onset of Covid-19.

Response: Nike didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

Attorneys: Altshuler Berzon LLP and Capp & Lauinger LLP represent the proposed class.

The case is Bunn v. Nike, Inc., Cal. Super. Ct., No. CGC20585683, 7/31/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Allsup in San Francisco at mallsup@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com

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