The state’s top court has agreed that a Falmouth woman with impaired vision can pursue a discrimination lawsuit against the ride-sharing app Uber.

Uber wanted to force the case to arbitration, and plaintiff Patricia Sarchi wanted to take it to court. A Maine Superior Court judge sided with Sarchi last year, and the company appealed. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld that decision Thursday – the opinion was its first to address online contracts.

“This decision is significant because Ms. Sarchi can now have her day in court,” said attorney Kristin Aiello, who represented the plaintiff. “Her case has far reaching implications for Maine people as more services are offered virtually. Uber has asserted that it is not subject to antidiscrimination laws, unlike every other taxi or ride service in Maine. We believe Uber is wrong and we look forward to seeing them in Court.”

The dispute dates to 2015, when a family member registered Sarchi for Uber. She did not use the app until 2017, when she was seeking a ride home after an appointment in Portland. She had someone use her phone to contact Uber for a ride, but when the driver showed up, he refused to take Sarchi’s guide dog.

Sarchi filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. Uber argued it was not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act because its ride-hailing service provides no physical space, and its drivers are independent contractors. The commission sided with Sarchi in 2019.

When subsequent settlement talks with Uber went nowhere, Sarchi filed suit in Maine Superior Court. Uber argued that the terms and conditions on its site require that any disputes be settled by binding arbitration, but Aiello disagreed. When the judge sided with Sarchi last year, Aiello said, Uber might have been able to argue that it was not covered by Maine and federal anti-discrimination laws if the case had gone to arbitration. That would not be the case in court.

The Supreme Judicial Court found that Uber could have designed its app to provide adequate notice of its terms and require users to actually express assent, but it did not. As a result, Sarchi was not bound by those terms and could not be forced into arbitration.

“The court’s decision sends the message that if a company wants to bind consumers to its terms and conditions of use, it must provide reasonable, conspicuous notice of those terms and it must be prepared to prove that the user assented,” Aiello said. “The Law Court found that Uber failed to do so here.”

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