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Safe harbor for qualified small businesses. Section 36.304(d)(5) of the NPRM would have provided that a qualified small business would meet its obligation to remove architectural barriers where readily achievable for a given year if, during that tax year, the entity spent at least 1 percent of its gross revenue in the preceding tax year on measures undertaken in compliance with barrier removal requirements. Proposed § 36.304(d)(5) has been omitted from the final rule. The qualified small business safe harbor was proposed in response to small business advocates' requests for clearer guidance on when barrier removal is, and is not, readily achievable. According to these groups, the Department's approach to readily achievable barrier removal disproportionately affects small business for the following reasons: (1) Small businesses are more likely to operate in older buildings and facilities; (2) the 1991 Standards are too numerous and technical for most small business owners to understand and determine how they relate to State and local building or accessibility codes; and (3) small businesses are vulnerable to title III litigation and often are compelled to settle because they cannot afford the litigation costs involved in proving that an action is not readily achievable.

The 2010 Standards go a long way toward meeting the concern of small businesses with regard to achieving compliance with both Federal and State accessibility requirements, because the Access Board harmonized the 2004 ADAAG with the model codes that form the basis of most State and local accessibility codes. Moreover, the element-by-element safe harbor will ensure that unless and until a small business engages in alteration of affected elements, the small business will not have to retrofit elements that were constructed in compliance with the 1991 Standards or, with respect to elements in an existing facility, that were retrofitted to the 1991 Standards in conjunction with the business's barrier removal obligation prior to the rule's compliance date.

In proposing an additional safe harbor for small businesses, the Department had sought to promulgate a rule that would provide small businesses a level of certainty in short-term and long-term planning with respect to barrier removal. This in turn would benefit individuals with disabilities in that it would encourage small businesses to consider and incorporate barrier removal in their yearly budgets. Such a rule also would provide some protection, through diminished litigation risks, to small businesses that undertake significant barrier removal projects.

As proposed in the NPRM, the qualified small business safe harbor would provide that a qualified small business has met its readily achievable barrier removal obligations for a given year if, during that tax year, the entity has spent at least 1 percent of its gross revenue in the preceding tax year on measures undertaken to comply with title III barrier removal requirements. (Several small business advocacy organizations pointed out an inconsistency between the Department's description of the small business safe harbor in the Section-by-Section Analysis for § 36.304 and the proposed regulatory text for that provision. The proposed regulatory text sets out the correct parameters of the proposed rule. The Department does not believe that the error substantively affected the comments on this issue. Some commenters noted the discrepancy and commented on both; others commented more generally on the proposal, so the discrepancy was not relevant.) The Department noted that the efficacy of any proposal for a small business safe harbor would turn on the following two determinations: (1) The definition of a qualified small business, and (2) the formula for calculating what percentage of revenue is sufficient to satisfy the readily achievable presumption.

As proposed in § 36.104 in the NPRM, a ‘‘qualified small business'' is a business entity defined as a small business concern under the regulations promulgated by the Small Business Administration (SBA) pursuant to the Small Business Act. See 15 U.S.C. 632; 13 CFR part 121. The Department noted that under section 3(a)(2)(C) of the Small Business Act, Federal departments and agencies are prohibited from prescribing a size standard for categorizing a business concern as a small business unless the department or agency has been authorized specifically to do so or has proposed a size standard in compliance with the criteria set forth in the SBA regulations, has provided an opportunity for public notice and comment on the proposed standard, and has received approval from the Administrator of the SBA to use the standard. See 15 U.S.C. 632(a)(2)(C). The Department further noted that Federal agencies or departments promulgating regulations relating to small businesses usually use SBA size criteria, and they otherwise must be prepared to justify how they arrived at a different standard and why the SBA's regulations do not satisfy the agency's program requirements. See 13 CFR 121.903. The ADA does not define ‘‘small business'' or specifically authorize the Department to prescribe size standards.

In the NPRM, the Department indicated its belief that the size standards developed by the SBA are appropriate for determining which businesses subject to the ADA should be eligible for the small business safe harbor provisions, and proposed to adopt the SBA's size standards to define small businesses for purposes of the qualified small business safe harbor. The SBA's small business size standards define the maximum size that a concern, together with all of its affiliates, may be if it is to be eligible for Federal small business programs or to be considered a small business for the purpose of other Federal agency programs. Concerns primarily engaged in the same kind of economic activity are classified in the same industry regardless of their types of ownership (such as sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation). Approximately 1200 industries are described in detail in the North American Industry Classification System—United States, 2007. For most businesses, the SBA has established a size standard based on average annual receipts. The majority of places of public accommodation will be classified as small businesses if their average annual receipts are less than $6.5 million. However, some will qualify with higher annual receipts. The SBA small business size standards should be familiar to many if not most small businesses, and using these standards in the ADA regulation would provide some certainty to owners, operators, and individuals because the SBA's current size standards can be changed only after notice and comment rulemaking.

The Department explained in the NPRM that the choice of gross revenue as the basis for calculating the safe harbor threshold was intended to avoid the effect of differences in bookkeeping practices and to maximize accessibility consistent with congressional intent. The Department recognized, however, that entities with similar gross revenue could have very different net revenue, and that this difference might affect what is readily achievable for a particular entity. The Department also recognized that adopting a small business safe harbor would effect a marked change to the Department's current position on barrier removal. Accordingly, the Department sought public comment on whether a presumption should be adopted whereby qualifying small businesses are presumed to have done what is readily achievable for a given year if, during that tax year, the entity spent at least 1 percent of its gross revenue in the preceding tax year on barrier removal, and on whether 1 percent is an appropriate amount or whether gross revenue would be the appropriate measure.

The Department received many comments on the proposed qualified small business safe harbor. From the business community, comments were received from individual business owners and operators, industry and trade groups, and advocacy organizations for business and industry. From the disability community, comments were received from individuals, disability advocacy groups, and nonprofit organizations involved in providing services for persons with disabilities or involved in disability-related fields. The Department has considered all relevant matter submitted on this issue during the 60-day public comment period.

Small businesses and industry groups strongly supported a qualified small business safe harbor of some sort, but none supported the structure proposed by the Department in the NPRM. All felt strongly that clarifications and modifications were needed to strengthen the provision and to provide adequate protection from litigation.

Business commenters' objections to the proposed qualified small business safe harbor fell generally into three categories: (1) That gross revenue is an inappropriate and inaccurate basis for determining what is readily achievable by a small business since it does not take into account expenses that may result in a small business operating at a loss; (2) that courts will interpret the regulation to mean that a small business must spend 1 percent of gross revenue each year on barrier removal, i.e., that expenditure of 1 percent of gross revenue on barrier removal is always ‘‘readily achievable''; and (3) that a similar misinterpretation of the 1 percent gross revenue concept, i.e., that 1 percent of gross revenue is always ‘‘readily achievable,'' will be applied to public accommodations that are not small businesses and that have substantially larger gross revenue. Business groups also expressed significant concern about the recordkeeping burdens they viewed as inherent in the Department's proposal.

Across the board, business commenters objected to the Department's proposed use of gross revenue as the basis for calculating whether the small business safe harbor has been met. All contended that 1 percent of gross revenue is too substantial a trigger for safe harbor protection and would result in barrier removal burdens far exceeding what is readily achievable or ‘‘easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.'' 42U.S.C. 12181(9). These commenters further pointed out that gross revenue and receipts vary considerably from industry to industry depending on the outputs sold in each industry, and that the use of gross revenue or receipts would therefore result in arbitrary and inequitable burdens on those subject to the rule. These commenters stated that the readily achievable analysis, and thus the safe harbor threshold, should be premised on a business's net revenue so that operating expenses are offset before determining what amount might be available for barrier removal. Many business commenters contended that barrier removal is not readily achievable if an entity is operating at a loss, and that a spending formula premised on net revenue can reflect more accurately businesses' ability to engage in barrier removal.

There was no consensus among the business commenters as to a formula that would reflect more accurately what is readily achievable for small businesses with respect to barrier removal. Those that proposed alternative formulas offered little in the way of substantive support for their proposals. One advocacy organization representing a large cross-section of small businesses provided some detail on the gross and net revenue of various industry types and sizes in support of its position that for nearly all small businesses, net revenue is a better indicator of a business's financial ability to spend money on barrier removal. The data also incidentally highlighted the importance and complexity of ensuring that each component in a safe harbor formula accurately informs and contributes to the ultimate question of what is and is not readily achievable for a small business.

Several business groups proposed that a threshold of 0.5 percent (or one-half of 1 percent) of gross revenue, or 2.5 percent of net revenue, spent on ADA compliance might be a workable measure of what is ‘‘readily achievable'' for small businesses. Other groups proposed 3 to 5 percent of net revenue as a possible measure. Several commenters proposed affording small businesses an option of using gross or net revenue to determine safe harbor eligibility. Another commenter proposed premising the safe harbor threshold on a designated percentage of the amount spent on renovation in a given year. Others proposed averaging gross or net revenue over a number of years to account for cyclical changes in economic and business environments. Additionally, many proposed that an entity should be able to roll over expenditures in excess of the safe harbor for inclusion in safe harbor analysis in subsequent years, to facilitate barrier removal planning and encourage large-scale barrier removal measures.

Another primary concern of many businesses and business groups is that the 1 percent threshold for safe harbor protection would become a de facto ‘‘floor'' for what is readily achievable for any small business entity. These commenters urged the Department to clarify that readily achievable barrier removal remains the standard, and that in any given case, an entity retains the right to assert that barrier removal expenditures below the 1 percent threshold are not readily achievable. Other business groups worried that courts would apply the 1 percent calculus to questions of barrier removal by businesses too large to qualify for the small business safe harbor. These commenters requested clarification that the rationale underlying the Department's determination that a percentage of gross revenue can appropriately approximate readily achievable barrier removal for small businesses does not apply outside the small business context.

Small businesses and business groups uniformly requested guidance as to what expenses would be included in barrier removal costs for purposes of determining whether the safe harbor threshold has been met. These commenters contended that any and all expenses associated with ADA compliance—e.g., consultants, architects, engineers, staff training, and recordkeeping— should be included in the calculation. Some proposed that litigation-related expenses, including defensive litigation costs, also should be accounted for in a small business safe harbor. Additionally, several commenters urged the Department to issue a small business compliance guide with detailed guidance and examples regarding application of the readily achievable barrier removal standard and the safe harbor. Some commenters felt that the Department's regulatory efforts should be focused on clarifying the readily achievable standard rather than on introducing a safe harbor based on a set spending level.

Businesses and business groups expressed concern that the Department's proposed small business safe harbor would not alleviate small business vulnerability to litigation. Individuals and advocacy groups were equally concerned that the practical effect of the Department's proposal likely would be to accelerate or advance the initiation of litigation. These commenters pointed out that an individual encountering barriers in small business facilities will not know whether the entity is noncompliant or entitled to safe harbor protection. Safe harbor eligibility can be evaluated only after review of the small business's barrier removal records and financial records. Individuals and advocacy groups argued that the Department should not promulgate a rule by which individuals must file suit to obtain the information needed to determine whether a lawsuit is appropriate in a particular case, and that, therefore, the rule should clarify that small businesses are required to produce such documentation to any individual upon request.

Several commenters noted that a small business safe harbor based on net, rather than gross, revenue would complicate exponentially its efficacy as an affirmative defense, because accounting practices and asserted expenses would be subject to discovery and dispute. One business advocacy group representing a large cross-section of small businesses noted that some small business owners and operators likely would be uncomfortable with producing detailed financial information, or could be prevented from using the safe harbor because of inadvertent recordkeeping deficiencies.

Individuals, advocacy groups, and nonprofit organizations commenting on behalf of the disability community uniformly and strongly opposed a safe harbor for qualified small businesses, saying it is fundamentally at odds with the intent of Congress and the plain language of the ADA. These commenters contended that the case-specific factors underlying the statute's readily achievable standard cannot be reconciled with a formulaic accounting approach, and that a blanket formula inherently is less fair, less flexible, and less effective than the current case-by-case determination for whether an action is readily achievable. Moreover, they argued, a small business safe harbor for readily achievable barrier removal is unnecessary because the statutory standard explicitly provides that a business need only spend what is readily achievable—an amount that may be more or less than 1 percent of revenue in any given year.

Several commenters opined that the formulaic approach proposed by the Department overlooks the factors that often prove most conducive and integral to readily achievable barrier removal—planning and prioritization. Many commenters expressed concern that the safe harbor creates an incentive for business entities to forego large-scale barrier removal in favor of smaller, less costly removal projects, regardless of the relative access the measures might provide. Others commented that an emphasis on a formulaic amount rather than readily achievable barrier removal might result in competition among types of disabilities as to which barriers get removed first, or discrimination against particular types of disabilities if barrier removal for those groups is more expensive.

Many commenters opposed to the small business safe harbor proposed clarifications and limiting rules. A substantial number of commenters were strongly opposed to what they perceived as a vastly overbroad and overly complicated definition of ‘‘qualified small business'' for purposes of eligibility for the safe harbor, and urged the Department to limit the qualified small business safe harbor to those businesses eligible for the ADA small business tax credit under section 44 of the Tax Code. Some commenters from the disability community contended that the spending level that triggers the safe harbor should be cumulative, to reflect the continuing nature of the readily achievable barrier obligation and to preclude a business from erasing years of unjustifiable inaction or insufficient action by spending up to the safe harbor threshold for one year. These commenters also sought explicit clarification that the small business safe harbor is an affirmative defense.

A number of commenters proposed that a business seeking to use the qualified small business safe harbor should be required to have a written barrier removal plan that contains a prioritized list of significant access barriers, a schedule for removal, and a description of the methods used to identify and prioritize barriers. These commenters argued that only spending consistent with the plan should count toward the qualified small business threshold.

After consideration of all relevant matter presented, the Department has concluded that neither the qualified small business safe harbor proposed in the NPRM nor any of the alternatives proposed by commenters will achieve the Department's intended results. Business and industry commenters uniformly objected to a safe harbor based on gross revenue, argued that 1 percent of gross revenue was out of reach for most, if not all, small businesses, and asserted that a safe harbor based on net revenue would better capture whether and to what extent barrier removal is readily achievable for small businesses. Individuals and disability advocacy groups rejected a set formula as fundamentally inconsistent with the case-specific approach reflected in the statute.

Commenters on both sides noted ambiguity as to which ADA-related costs appropriately should be included in the calculation of the safe harbor threshold, and expressed concern about the practical effect of the proposed safe harbor on litigation. Disability organizations expressed concern that the proposal might increase litigation because individuals with disabilities confronted with barriers in places of public accommodation would not be able to independently assess whether an entity is noncompliant or is, in fact, protected by the small business safe harbor. The Department notes that the concerns about enforcement-related complexity and expense likely would increase exponentially with a small business safe harbor based on net revenue.

The Department continues to believe that promulgation of a small business safe harbor would be within the scope of the Attorney General's mandate under 42 U.S.C. 12186(b) to issue regulations to carry out the provisions of title III. Title III defines ‘‘readily achievable'' to mean ‘‘easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense,'' 42 U.S.C. 12181(9), and sets out factors to consider in determining whether an action is readily achievable. While the statutory factors reflect that whether an action is readily achievable is a fact-based determination, there is no inherent inconsistency with the Department's proposition that a formula based on revenue and barrier removal expenditure could accurately approximate the high end of the level of expenditure that can be considered readily achievable for a circumscribed subset of title III entities defined, in part, by their maximum annual average receipts. Moreover, the Department's obligation under the SBREFA to consider alternative means of compliance for small businesses, See 5 U.S.C. 603(c), further supports the Department's conclusion that a well-targeted formula is a reasonable approach to implementation of the statute's readily achievable standard. While the Department ultimately has concluded that a small business safe harbor should not be included in the final rule, the Department continues to believe that it is within the Department's authority to develop and implement such a safe harbor.

As noted above, the business community strongly objected to a safe harbor premised on gross revenue, on the ground that gross revenue is an unreliable indicator of an entity's ability to remove barriers, and urged the Department to formulate a safe harbor based on net revenue. The Department's proposed use of gross revenue was intended to offer a measure of certainty for qualified small businesses while ensuring that those businesses continue to meet their ongoing obligation to remove architectural barriers where doing so is readily achievable.

The Department believes that a qualified small business safe harbor based on net revenue would be an unreliable indicator of what is readily achievable and would be unworkable in practice. Evaluation of what is readily achievable for a small business cannot rest solely on a business's net revenue because many decisions about expenses are inherently subjective, and in some cases a net loss may be more beneficial (in terms of taxes, for example) than a small net profit. The Department does not read the ADA's readily achievable standard to mean necessarily that architectural barrier removal is to be, or should be, a business's last concern, or that a business can claim that every barrier removal obligation is not readily achievable. Therefore, if a qualified small business safe harbor were to be premised on net revenue, assertion of the affirmative defense would trigger discovery and examination of the business's accounting methods and the validity or necessity of offsetting expenses. The practical benefits and legal certainty intended by the NPRM would be lost.

Because there was little to no support for the Department's proposed use of gross revenue and no workable alternatives are available at this time, the Department will not adopt a small business safe harbor in this final rule. Small business public accommodations are subject to the barrier removal requirements set out in § 36.304 of the final rule. In addition, the Department plans to provide small businesses with more detailed guidance on assessing and meeting their barrier removal obligations in a small business compliance guide.


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