(Reuters) - Uber Technologies Inc must defend against a lawsuit accusing the popular ride-sharing service of discriminating against blind people by refusing to transport guide dogs, a federal judge ruled.
In a decision late Friday night, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins in San Jose, California, said the plaintiffs could pursue a claim that Uber is a "travel service" subject to potential liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The judge rejected Uber's arguments that the plaintiffs, including the National Federation of the Blind of California, lacked standing to sue under the ADA and state laws protecting the disabled.
Uber was given 14 days to formally respond to the complaint.
Aaron Zisser, a lawyer for Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, California, which helped bring the case, said the plaintiffs are pleased with the decision.
"Uber is a very popular service, and it is important for riders with service animals to be able to use it like anyone else," he said in a phone interview.
In a statement, Uber said drivers are told that company policy is to comply with all laws regarding transportation of service animals.
"The Uber app is built to expand access to transportation options for all, including users with visual impairments and other disabilities," the company said.
In seeking to dismiss the case, Uber also said the individual plaintiffs were required to arbitrate their claims.
Valued at an estimated $40 billion, Uber says it offers its mobile phone taxi-hailing service in more than 270 cities and geographic areas in 56 countries, and can charge varying prices based on demand.
But the San Francisco-based company has faced complaints around the world over how it pays drivers, treats passengers and ensures safety.
In the discrimination case, the plaintiffs said federal law requires operators of taxi services such as Uber to carry service animals for blind riders, but it knows of more than 40 instances in which Uber drivers refused.
They cited two instances in which Uber drivers allegedly yelled "no dogs" at riders, and another in which a Uber driver allegedly refused a blind woman's plea to pull over once she realized he had locked her guide dog in the trunk of his car.
Uber said it was "on the cutting edge of expanding accessibility" for the disabled, and said that claims it failed to accommodate blind people with service animals had no merit.
The case is National Federation of the Blind of California et al v. Uber Technologies Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 14-04086.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Ted Botha and Leslie Adler