The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination based on disability. All places of public accommodations are subject to the ADA, and 42 U.S.C. § 12181(7)(F) lists the service-based entities that are considered public accommodations for purposes of the Act, including a catch-all of “other service establishments.” The list includes: “a laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment.”
Plasma centers collect donated plasma from humans to be used in medical therapy and research. People who give plasma are paid in return for their donation. Many plasma centers have policies barring ineligible donors, basing eligibility on things like medical history, prescribed medication, and the recency of a new tattoo or piercing, or other “risky” activities. In recent years, one specific plasma center – CSL Plasma, Inc. – has become subject to controversy for its safety policy, which bars all who use service animals for anxiety from eligibility.
Are plasma centers considered “service establishments” and therefore subject to the ADA’s prohibition on discrimination for public accommodations?
The Fifth Circuit has split from the Third and Tenth Circuits on the issue of whether plasma centers are considered service establishments. All three circuits considered the dictionary definitions of the words “service” and “establishment,” referencing Webster’s Third International Dictionary. According to the dictionary, “service” means “conduct or performance that assists or benefits someone or something” and “establishment” means a “place of business.” The issue of whether a plasma center is a place of business is not contested.
In Silguero v. CSL Plasma, Inc (2018), the Fifth Circuit held that plasma centers are not service establishments, and therefore not subject to the ADA’s prohibition on discrimination. The court first looked at the dictionary definition and reasoned that donors receive no detectable benefit from the act of donation. As Webster’s definition considers a service to be a benefit received, the Fifth Circuit held that the plasma collection cannot be considered a “service.”
In addition, the Fifth Circuit implemented ejusdem generis, a canon of statutory interpretation that interprets a general term in a statute by looking to the preceding examples. The court found that the examples prior to “service establishment,” which included hospitals, barbershops, lawyers, and gas stations among the many, all offered a public a service in exchange for monetary compensation, whereas plasma centers pay the public for donations. As plasma centers do not receive money from the public, and instead give money to the public, the Fifth Circuit further confirmed its holding that plasma centers are not service establishments that must follow the ADA.
The Tenth Circuit disagreed with this interpretation in Levorsen v. Octapharma Plasma, Inc. (2016) and found plasma centers to be service establishments. Instead, the Tenth Circuit reasoned that the “service” requirement was fulfilled as the donors who provided plasma for medical use were indeed “benefited” by the monetary compensation they received in exchange, whether the benefit was altruistic or pecuniary gain.
The Third Circuit agreed with the Tenth and expanded its reasoning in Matheis v. CSL Plasma, Inc (2019). The Third Circuit focused its analysis on the benefit aspect, affirming that the receipt of money is a clear benefit to the donor. Moreover, the Third Circuit diverged even further from the Fifth Circuit, countering the assertion that a public service must involve the receipt of compensation from customers, stating that this emphasis on the direction of compensation is “unhelpful.”
To support this argument, the Third Circuit referenced the fact that § 12181(7)(F) includes “bank” as a service entity. The Third Circuit argued this inclusion made it clear that the Fifth Circuit’s narrow reading was flawed, as customers of banks receive compensation for using the bank’s services. In regard to plasma centers, the Third Circuit held that these facilities “[offer] a service to the public, the extracting of plasma for money, with the plasma then used by the center in its business of supplying a vital product to healthcare providers. That both the center and members of the public derive economic value from the center’s provision and public’s use of a commercial service does not divorce the center from the other listed examples in § 12181(7)(F).”
Accordingly, the Third Circuit ruled that plasma centers were subject to the ADA. The Third Circuit went on to hold that CSL’s service animal policy was not a valid safety rule as its reasoning was speculative and generalized “widely about individuals who use service animals, all of whom CSL apparently views as people with ‘severe anxiety,’” rather than based on medical or scientific evidence.
The circuit split on the matter of “service establishments” is troubling. Until this split is reconciled, it is possible that other establishments could argue exemption from discrimination on the basis of disability due to the narrow reading of “service” in the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning. It is important to ensure that establishments are not making safety assessments based on generalizations or stereotypes surrounding disability, and that service is not denied to owners of canine caregivers or other service animals.