Until recently, it was unclear whether foreign cruise ships operating in U.S. waters were subject to anti-discrimination laws that apply to U.S. common carriers. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against the disabled in public transportation and accommodations, can be enforced, at least in part, on foreign-flag vessels.
In Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd., claims that the cruise line’s policies and conditions were discriminatory against the disabled were initially dismissed by district and appellate courts due to the absence of a clear congressional intent to extend the ADA’s provisions to foreign vessels. The Supreme Court granted a partial reversal and held that the ADA may be applied to foreign cruise ships that operate in the U.S., albeit on a limited basis.
In its ruling, the Court observed that unless Congress expressly indicates otherwise, general statutes may not apply to foreign-flag vessels if they affect matters that involve only the “internal order and discipline” of the vessel. For example, labor laws that address the rights and duties of a ship and its crew relate to the internal operations of the vessel and, therefore, do not apply to foreign vessels. However, the Court found that it is reasonable to presume that Congress intends that its statutes apply to entities in U.S. territories insofar as they may impact domestic concerns. The result is that ADA can be invoked against foreign carriers to prevent discriminatory practices against U.S. citizens.
The Spector plaintiffs also sought to have physical barriers aboard Norwegian’s ships removed — barriers that they claimed were unfair obstacles to disabled passengers. Under ADA, physical alterations are not required if they cannot be easily completed without undue expense. Moreover, barrier removals that compromise shipboard safety or which may run afoul of international legal obligations cannot be mandated under the ADA.
Spector is significant in that it brings foreign cruse ships in line with their U.S. counterparts with respect to governance under ADA, at least insofar as their practices affect concerns in the U.S.