The increase of ADA Title III lawsuits in federal court shows no signs of stopping.  From January 1 through April 30, 2017, 2629 lawsuits were filed — 412 more than during the same period in 2016.  That’s a whopping 18 percent increase.  As we previously reported, the total number of lawsuits filed in federal court in 2016 was 6,601 and represented a 37% increase from 2015.

Federal ADA Title III Lawsuits: January 1-April 30, 2017: Jan.-April 2016 (2217); Jan.-April 2017 (2629)
Federal ADA Title III Lawsuits: January-April 2017: Jan.-April 2016 (2217); Jan.-April 2017 (2629)

Based on our own practice, website and mobile app accessibility lawsuits have become more common, with lawsuits being brought in new jurisdictions.  Our research team is crunching the website lawsuit numbers and we hope to get them to you soon.

Disabled sign pinned on cork noticeboard

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Recent guidance from the U.S. Access Board makes it more difficult for businesses to argue that the Accessible Icon constitutes “equivalent facilitation” under the ADA, even though jurisdictions such as New York and Connecticut require the use of this alternative disability access symbol.

As we previously reported, New York State and more recently, Connecticut, passed legislation requiring the use of the “Accessible Icon” in lieu of the traditional International Symbol of Access (“ISA”) in new construction and alterations whenever an accessibility sign is required by code.  But Title III of the ADA and the Architectural Barriers Act (“ABA”), which apply to public accommodations facilities and federally-funded facilities, respectively, still require the use of the ISA.  Specifically, the ADA and ABA require that the ISA be used to label and provide direction to certain accessible spaces and elements, such as restrooms, parking spaces, and check-out aisles.

This conflict has presented a quandary for businesses: Display the ISA as the ADA requires; display the Accessible Icon, as state or local codes require; or, display both symbols, which would multiply costs, negatively impact aesthetics, and potentially confuse patrons.

Last week, the U.S. Access Board, the federal agency that drafted the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (which the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) incorporated into its ADA Title III regulations) and also sets accessibility standards for federal agencies, issued a Guidance stating unequivocally that “the ISA must be used even where a state or local code or regulation specifies a different symbol.”  Although the DOJ, not the Access Board, enforces Title III of the ADA and the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the Guidance could be considered by a court in a Title III enforcement action, given the Access Board’s relevant expertise.

Is the ISA Really Outmoded?

The Accessible Icon Project began as a “street art” campaign that was apparently intended to replace the “traditional,” static figure displayed in the ISA with a more active, dynamic and positive depiction of individuals with disabilities.

The ISA (left) and the Accessible Icon (right)

The effort to replace the ISA with the Accessible Icon has faced recent hurdles.  In May 2015, the Federal Highway Administration (“FHA”) issued an Interpretation Letter stating that the use of alternative symbols of accessibility are not acceptable for traffic control device applications because they are not “unmistakably similar” to the ISA.  The agency went one step further, commenting that the use of non-conforming symbols, including “by approval of local authority,” “compromises the enforceability of these devices.” (emphasis added)  The Interpretation Letter also noted that the Access Board has not adopted or endorsed any alternative designs.

Access Board: the ISA is Still the Recognized Symbol of Accessibility

The Access Board’s Guidance states that the ISA has become a “worldwide” symbol that “reflects considerable analysis by, and consensus of, an international collection of technical experts,” including the International Organization for Standardization, which is a non-governmental organization that represents over 160 national standard-setting agencies.  In addition to the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s ADA Standards, ABA, International Building Code (“IBC”), National Fire Protection Association Standards, and ICC A117.1 also require the ISA.

No Endorsement of the Accessible Icon as “Equivalent Facilitation”

Businesses in New York or Connecticut where they are required by new state laws to use the Accessible Icon in new construction and alterations could display the Accessible Icon and take the position that its use satisfies the “equivalent facilitation” provision in Section 103 of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.  Under Section 103, businesses may use “designs. . . as alternatives to those prescribed [by the ADA], provided they result in substantially equivalent or greater accessibility and usability.”  However, no court or agency has ruled on this issue.  The Guidance does not comment on whether the Accessible Icon would constitute “equivalent facilitation” but instead defers to the courts, and encourages those advocating for a new symbol to contact the International Organization for Standardization.

The Guidance stresses the value of uniformity and recognition over what some believe is a negative (or at least limiting) depiction of individuals with disabilities.  The ISA “promotes legibility, especially for people with low vision or cognitive disabilities,” according to the Guidance.  This supports the Access Board’s conclusion that, irrespective of conflicting state or local requirements, businesses must display the ISA where required by federal standards.

Businesses Should Carefully Consider the Use of the Accessibility Icon in Future Projects

The situation is confusing, but one thing is clear:  Businesses that do not use the traditional ISA symbol where it is required by federal law face litigation exposure under Title III of the ADA, and the Access Board’s Guidance makes the “equivalent facilitation” argument more challenging.  Businesses in New York and Connecticut should seek guidance on whether local permitting authorities have the ability to waive the Accessible Icon requirement, the consequences of not using the Accessible Icon, and the implications of using both the Accessible Icon and the ISA.

Edited by Kristina Launey and Minh Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Two Florida federal district court judges require websites to have a “nexus” to a physical location for coverage under Title III of the ADA, but a third judge requires more.

Modern smart mobile phone with on line shopping store graphicThe Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Florida, Alabama, and Georgia) has yet to decide whether and to what extent Title III of the ADA applies to websites of public accommodations, but recent rulings from three different federal judges in Florida do provide insight on where the judges in that circuit may draw the lines.

Gil v. Winn DixieIn December 2016, we wrote about the Gil v. Winn Dixie Stores case where a blind plaintiff alleged that Winn Dixie’s website violated Title III of the ADA because it was not accessible to him.  Winn Dixie moved to dismiss the case, arguing that websites are not covered by Title III of the ADA because they are not physical places.  Though not a party to the lawsuit, the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest supporting the plaintiff and expressing its view that “Title III applies to discrimination in the goods and services ‘of’ a place of public accommodation, rather than being limited to those goods and services provided ‘at’ or ‘in’ a place of public accommodation.”  In response, Winn Dixie objected to the DOJ’s involvement and moved to strike the DOJ’s Statement of Interest.

District Court Judge Robert Scola recently denied Winn Dixie’s motion to dismiss the case and to strike the DOJ’s Statement of Interest.  The case is now on its way to a bench trial — the first trial concerning an ADA Title III claim about a website, to our knowledge.  In denying the motion to dismiss, Judge Scola agreed with the DOJ’s analysis that the law guarantees a plaintiff equal access to the services, privileges, and advantages “of” a public accommodation, not just those that are offered “at” a place of accommodation.  Judge Scola noted that “Winn-Dixie’s website is heavily integrated with, and in many ways operates as a gateway to, Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations.”  The court found that allegations concerning the website’s store locator feature and prescription ordering service for in-store pick up, if proven, could establish “nexus between Winn-Dixie’s website and its physical stores.”

Gomez v. J. Lindeberg USA, LLC.  In this case, the defendant defaulted and District Court Judge Kathleen Williams had to determine if, on the basis of the facts alleged in the complaint, serial plaintiff Andrew Gomez was entitled to have a judgment entered in his favor.  The complaint alleged that the plaintiff could not purchase clothing or search for store locations on the defendant retailer’s website because it was not accessible.  Judge Williams concluded that the plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts establish a “nexus between the challenged service and the place of public accommodation,” and entered an injunction requiring the defendant to “undertake immediate remedial measures to make its website readily accessible and usable to people with visual disabilities.” The judge also ordered the defendant to pay plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

Gomez v. Bang & Olufsen.  District Court Judge Joan Lenard held in this case that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim under the ADA because he had not alleged that the website’s alleged inaccessibility impeded his full use and enjoyment of the brick-and-mortar store.  The plaintiff had alleged that he could not shop for items on the website to have them delivered to his home.  Judge Lenard held that the plaintiff failed to claim “an actual (not hypothetical) impediment to the use of Defendant’s retail location.”

***

To summarize, two of the three Florida federal judges to have decided whether Title III of the ADA covers websites of public accommodations require a “nexus” between the website and a physical place of business where customers go (in alignment with the Ninth Circuit and precluding suits against web-only businesses), and one requires that the website’s lack of accessibility actually impede a plaintiff’s access to a physical place of business.  All three judges agree that websites with no nexus to a physical place of public accommodation are not covered by the ADA.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Two recent decisions by federal judges to dismiss website accessibility lawsuits may cause more public accommodations to fight instead of settle these suits, but businesses must continue to weigh many factors before making that decision.

The litigation tide might be turning for public accommodations choosing to fight lawsuits brought by blind individuals claiming that the businesses’ websites violate Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not being accessible to them.  As we have previously reported, about a dozen or so plaintiffs’ firms have filed hundreds of lawsuits and sent thousands of demand letters to businesses asserting this type of claim on behalf of blind clients in the past two years.  Most of these matters have settled quickly and confidentially, and the relatively few defendants who chose to litigate rarely had success in getting the cases dismissed.  However, two recent decisions from California and Florida federal judges do provide encouragement for businesses that are willing to spend the money to litigate.

On March 20, 2017, federal District Judge James Otero of the Central District of California dismissed a lawsuit by a blind plaintiff who claimed that he could not order pizza from the Domino’s website because it could not be accessed using his screen reader.  The plaintiff claimed that by having an inaccessible website, Domino’s had violated Title III of the ADA and various California laws that prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities by public accommodations.

Dominos made three arguments as to why the case should be dismissed.  First, websites are not covered by Title III of the ADA.  Second, in the absence of regulations requiring public accommodations to have accessible websites, such entities can choose how they provide access to individuals with disabilities.   Dominos submitted evidence that it provided access for blind individuals through a 24-hour toll-free phone number where live agents would provide assistance with using the website, as well as direct phone access to stores for placing orders.  Third, holding Dominos liable for not having an accessible website would violate due process principles because the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not issued any regulations specifying whether and to what extent websites must be accessible or the legal standard to be applied in determining accessibility.

Judge Otero rejected the argument that the ADA does not cover websites of public accommodations. However, he agreed that Dominos had met its obligations under the law by providing telephonic access, and that requiring Dominos to have an accessible website at this time would violate its constitutional right to due process.  Judge Otero pointed out that neither the law nor the regulations require websites to be accessible, and that the DOJ had failed to issue regulations on this topic after seven years.  As further evidence that covered entities have not been given fair notice of their obligations, he cited the DOJ’s official statements from the beginning of the website rulemaking process that (1) it was considering what legal standard of accessibility to adopt, and (2) telephonic access could be a lawful alternative to having an accessible website.  Based on these due process concerns, Judge Otero invoked the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine which “allows courts to stay proceedings or dismiss a complaint without prejudice pending the resolution of an issue within the special competence of an administrative agency.”  This is the first time a court has dismissed a website accessibility case based on “due process” grounds and a welcome rebuke of the DOJ’s regulatory and enforcement activities to date.

On February 2, 2017, Florida District Judge Joan Lenard dismissed serial plaintiff Andres Gomez’s ADA Title III website lawsuit claim with leave to amend because he had failed to allege that his ability to use the defendant retailer’s website prevented him from accessing its stores.  Judge Lenard held that “[a]ll the ADA requires is that, if a retailer chooses to have a website, the website cannot impede a disabled person’s full use and enjoyment of the brick-and-mortar store.  To survive a motion to dismiss, Plaintiff must claim an actual (not hypothetical) impediment to the use of Defendant’s retail location.”  Gomez had alleged that he could not purchase products online, but did not claim that the website’s inaccessibility impeded his ability to go to a store.  Judge Lenard explicitly rejected the argument that the ADA requires a website to provide the same online-shopping experience as non-disabled persons, stating that “the ADA does not require places of public accommodations to create full-service websites.”

Practical Takeaways.  Here are some takeaways from these recent decisions:

  • All businesses that do not have an accessible website should have a 24/7 toll-free telephone number serviced by live customer service agents who can provide access to all of the information and functions on the website. The phone number should be identified on the website and be accessible using a screen reader.
  • Just because the judges in these cases ruled for the defendants does not mean that all defendants in future website accessibility cases will get the same outcome. These district court decisions are not binding on any other judges who may reach different conclusions.

These decisions do not change the analysis that a defendant must conduct in considering whether to fight or settle a particular case.  Defendants must consider many factors, including (1) the facts (e.g., is access to the goods and services on the website provided through some alternative channel, such as the telephone?), (2) the law in the circuit where the case is pending, (3) the judge, (4) the plaintiff, (5) the plaintiff’s law firm, (6) the cost of settlement, and (7) the cost of litigation.  The fact is that many of these cases can be settled for considerably less than what it would cost to file a motion to dismiss, and it is very difficult for prevailing defendants to recover their fees.  Defendants can only recover fees when the lawsuit was frivolous.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Fewer online videos from UC Berkeley will be available to the public as a result of a DOJ demand that the videos have closed captioning.

Starting March 15, 2017, more than 20,000 videos of classroom lectures and podcasts on UC Berkeley’s YouTube and iTunes channels will no longer be available for public viewing, according to a recent statement by the university.  The statement explains that the decision will “partially address recent findings by the Department of Justice which suggests that the YouTube and iTunesU content meet higher accessibility standards as a condition of remaining publicly available,” and “better protect instructor intellectual property from “pirates” who have reused content for personal profit without consent.”  UC Berkeley stated that it would focus its resources on creating new accessible online content and continue to offer free courses in accessible formats to the public through massive online open course provider, edX.

On August 30, 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued the findings UC Berkeley referenced in its recent statement, after conducting an investigation into the university’s compliance with Title II of the ADA.  DOJ concluded in the findings that that a covered entity subject to Title II has a duty to ensure content that it makes available to the public free of charge is accessible.

Similar to Title III of the ADA which applies to public accommodations (i.e., twelve categories of privately-owned entities that do business with the public), Title II of the ADA requires public universities and other covered entities to take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with individuals with disabilities are as effective as communications with others to afford qualified individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of their services programs, or activities.  It also requires covered entities to furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to achieve effective communication.  A covered entity is not, however, required to take any action that would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of its service, program or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.

As set forth in its findings letter, the DOJ opened its investigation after receiving complaints from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) on behalf of two of its members that some of UC Berkeley’s online videos did not have closed captioning.  Significantly, these complainants were members of the public seeking access to free information, not students, prospective students, or faculty.  The DOJ concluded that many of UC Berkeley’s online videos did not have proper closed captions, and has threatened to file an enforcement lawsuit against the school unless it agrees to enter into a consent decree, caption all of its online content, and pay damages to individuals with disabilities who had been injured by UC Berkeley’s failure to provide accessible online videos.  This DOJ matter is still pending as no resolution or enforcement suit has been announced.

The DOJ’s position in its findings letter to UC Berkeley — that a covered entity has a duty to ensure that content that it makes available to the public free of charge is accessible — certainly pushes the boundaries of the ADA and has not been tested in the courts.  If covered entities must in fact ensure that all of the information that they put out for the world to use for free (no matter how remotely related to their central mission) or face lawsuits and DOJ investigations, there may well be a significant reduction in the amount of information provided on the web for public consumption.

A court may at some point rule on this precise question in the pending lawsuits brought by members of the NAD against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Massachusetts federal court.  The plaintiffs there are members of the public who are asking the court to order the universities to provide captioning for tens of thousands of videos on their websites.  As we reported, the court rebuffed the universities’ efforts to dismiss the case early and President Obama’s DOJ filed briefs supporting the NAD. As the case continues, the universities will likely focus their efforts on proving that providing captioning for tens of thousands of videos is an undue burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the videos they are providing.  We would not be surprised if these lawsuits result in these universities deciding to follow UC Berkeley’s lead and limit the amount of public access to their online videos.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Seyfarth Synopsis: A state court has granted the Arizona Attorney General’s Motion To Dismiss approximately 1,700 Arizona access lawsuits on grounds that the organizational and individual plaintiffs lacked standing to sue.

As we previously reported here, the Arizona Attorney General responded to a surge of approximately 1,700 access suits filed in that state’s courts by moving to consolidate, to intervene in, and to dismiss all of such actions initiated by self-styled disability rights advocacy groups, including Advocates for Individuals With Disabilities Foundation (“AIDF”) and David Ritzenthaler.  According to a recent communication from the Arizona AG’s office describing his court appearance on February 17, 2017,  the Arizona trial court judge on that date orally granted the AG’s motion to dismiss virtually all of the consolidated cases with prejudice and directed the AG to submit a proposed form of judgment.

There currently is no written decision laying out the Court’s reasoning for its decision, so it is not clear which of the AG’s arguments persuaded the court to issue this decision.  The AG’s Motion to Dismiss challenged both the individual’s (Ritzenthaler’s) and AIDF’s standing to bring claims under what the AG described as the “rigorous” standing requirements of Arizona law. The AG presented several arguments about how the Plaintiffs failed to meet these requirements.  First, the AG argued that the Plaintiffs failed to allege that they patronized the businesses that they sued.  Second, the AG asserted that the Plaintiffs failed to allege an actual barrier to their access.  The AG noted that the state accessibility law violations identified in the consolidated complaints concern accessible parking signage, but that plaintiffs “assume that every instance of non-compliance with ADA or AZDA regulation, no matter how minor, represents a ‘barrier.’”  The AG then stated that “not all instances of ADA or AZDA non-compliance are barriers, and not all barriers deny access to all persons with disabilities.”  Third, the AG  asserted that Plaintiffs’ claims were insufficient because they failed to sufficiently allege denial of access based upon their particular, identified disability.  Fourth, the AG argued that Arizona does not recognize a “deterrence” theory of standing, which conceivably might overcome other failures in the complaint.  Fifth, the AG argued that the consolidated plaintiffs fail to allege the additional standing requirements for injunctive relief:  That the plaintiffs provided prior notice or an opportunity to remediate alleged violations and allege an intent to patronize the businesses in the future.

If the court issues a written opinion explaining the basis for his ruling, we will update you.

In an interesting peripheral note, the Arizona Attorney General’s office has notified affected parties that the Court also stated that it would consider applications for attorneys’ fees and costs following its ruling, and noted that, should any affected party be interested in filing a fee petition, it should keep in mind that any fee request “must be in sufficient detail to enable the court to assess the reasonableness of the time incurred.”  Schweiger v. China Doll Rest., Inc., 138 Ariz. 183, 188 (App. 1983).  Based upon the AG’s comments, this portion of the ruling apparently extends beyond the AG’s own attorneys’ fees and costs, potentially including any defendant who hired counsel to defend against Plaintiffs’ 1,700 dismissed actions prior to entry of the stay.

Edited by Minh Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Schools limits IDEA’s exhaustion requirement to those cases which seek relief for a denial of FAPE allowing for some claims brought under Title II and Section 504 on behalf of IDEA eligible students to proceed directly to court without implementation of IDEA’s administrative processes before litigation is commenced.

On February 22, Justice Kagan delivered the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Schools et al., 580 U.S. ____ (2017), and refined the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) exhaustion requirement by holding that this requirement may – in certain circumstances – not apply to a complaint brought under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The case specifically addressed whether IDEA’s exhaustion requirement barred claims for injunctive and monetary relief under Title II and Section 504 based on allegations that a school district denied a disabled child the right to bring a service dog to school.

Noting that IDEA’s statutory language requires exhaustion when a civil action is brought “seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA],”  the Supreme Court held that to meet the IDEA’s statutory exhaustion standard, “a suit must seek relief for the denial of a [free appropriate public education (FAPE)], because that is the only ‘relief’ the IDEA makes ‘available.’”  The Court found that a court should look to the “gravamen” of the plaintiff’s complaint in making the determination and pointed out that that “exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures is unnecessary” in cases where the broader point of a suit is about “something other than the denial” of that statute’s guarantee of FAPE for students with disabilities.  The Court recognized overlap in the protections afforded by IDEA, which is designed to guarantee students individually tailored special education and related services to provide FAPE, and the protections of Title II and Section 504, which mandate nondiscriminatory access to public instruction.  In doing so, the court provided “clues” to guide the exhaustion determination.  The Court described the first clue as coming from the following “pair of hypothetical questions”:

“First, could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school–say a public theatre or library?  And second, could an adult at the school–say, an employee or visitor–have pressed essentially the same grievance?”

The Court opined that when “the answer to these questions is yes, a complaint that does not expressly allege the denial of a FAPE is also unlikely to be truly about the subject.”  The Court identifies the second clue as:

“emerg[ing] from the history of the proceedings.  In particular, a court may consider that a plaintiff has previously invoked the IDEA’s formal procedures to handle the dispute–thus starting to exhaust the Act’s remedies before switching midstream.”

Recognizing the history of the underlying proceedings might suggest that the “gravamen of [Parents’ federal lawsuit] is the denial of FAPE,” the Court remanded the case with instructions that the court below “decide whether their actions reveal that the gravamen of their complaint is indeed the denial of a FAPE, thus necessitating further exhaustion.”

As a practical matter, this decision highlights the importance of compliance with Title II’s and Section 504’s accessibility mandates.  Failure to adequately monitor and address issues of alleged noncompliance could more readily lead to a lawsuit filed directly in federal court without IDEA’s processes and opportunities to resolve complaints before litigation is commenced. Therefore, this holding suggests that more litigation will be filed directly in federal court under Title II and Section 504 asserting that a public school failed to provide non-discriminatory access to an aid, benefit or service to disabled students otherwise eligible for IDEA’s special education programming.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  An executive order from President Trump will likely halt the Justice Department’s public accommodations website rulemaking.

President Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ) had stated that proposed regulations for public accommodations websites would be issued in 2018—eight years after the agency began its rulemaking process.  The likelihood of such a proposed regulation being issued now is virtually non-existent.

Among the flurry of executive orders President Trump signed this week was one entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs”.  This EO virtually obliterates any chance that the DOJ will issue any website regulations for public accommodations websites during Trump’s Administration.

The EO directs all federal agencies to:

  • Identify at least two existing regulations to be repealed for each new regulation;
  • Ensure that the total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations, to be finalized in 2017 be “no greater than zero;”
  • Offset any new incremental costs associated with new regulations by eliminating existing costs associated with at least two prior regulations.

The EO exempts regulations relating to: (1) military, national security, or foreign affairs functions of the United States; and (2) agency organization, management, or personnel.  It also vests the Director of the Office of Management and Budget with the authority to grant additional exemptions.  The stated purpose of this EO is to “manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with Federal regulations”.  We therefore assume that the EO would not apply to regulations applicable to state and local governments that the DOJ has been working on and could issue under Title II of the ADA.  It is unclear what, if any, impact this EO may have on the Title II regulatory effort.

While our prediction may seem dire, we cannot fathom what two regulations the DOJ would repeal to make way for new public accommodations website regulations and offset their associated cost.  Though some may think that businesses are better off with no regulations on this subject, we disagree.  The current tsunami of lawsuits and demand letters about allegedly inaccessible websites is the result of uncertainly and absence of regulations that impose reasonable rules that provide adequate time for businesses to comply.  This is one issue upon which virtually all who practice in this space – on the legal, technological, or advocacy side – agree.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With the recent proliferation of web accessibility demand letters and lawsuits, businesses often ask whether settling a claim with one plaintiff will bar future lawsuits brought by different plaintiffs. One federal judge recently said no.

Plaintiffs Rachel Gniewskowski, R. David New, and Access Now, Inc.—represented by Carlson, Lynch, Kilpela & Sweet—sued retailer Party City in the Western District of Pennsylvania on September 6, 2016, alleging that Party City’s website is not accessible to visually impaired consumers in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  On October 7, 2016 (while the Pennsylvania lawsuit was pending), Party City entered into a confidential settlement agreement with Andres Gomez, who had previously filed a similar lawsuit in Florida.  Both lawsuits contained the same basic set of facts and legal claims, and sought similar relief—modification of the website to make it accessible to, and useable by, individuals with disabilities.

Party City filed a summary judgment motion in the Pennsylvania case, arguing that the Pennsylvania case was barred by the prior settlement under principles of res judicata.  Res judicata applies when three circumstances are present: (1) a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit involving (2) the same parties or their privies, and (3) a subsequent suit based on the same cause of action.  In an order issued on January 27, 2017, the court denied the motion, finding that Party City could not establish the second element.

In its attempt to establish the second element, Party City argued that the Pennsylvania plaintiffs Gniewskowski and New were “adequately represented” in the Florida action by Gomez.  The Court disagreed, finding Gomez did not purport to represent Gniewskowski or New, noting that the “complaint in Gomez’s lawsuit made clear that Gomez brought his lawsuit ‘individually.’” Nor could Party City “point to any ‘procedural protections…in the original action’ that were intended to protect the current plaintiffs’ rights to due process”, such as notice of the prior settlement, or measures the court in the prior litigation took to determine whether the settlement was fair as to absent parties.

The court’s straightforward application of res judicata principles is not surprising, and even less so because there is no indication that Party City had committed to making its website accessible in the confidential settlement agreement—the relief sought in the Pennsylvania case. Public settlement agreements requiring a company to make its website accessible, or a consent decree in which a court orders a company to make its website accessible, are much more likely to deter additional website accessibility lawsuits.  Companies that are under a court order to make their websites accessible have a strong argument that any subsequent ADA Title III suit is moot because the only relief that can be obtained in such a suit—injunctive relief—has already been ordered.  Plaintiffs are also likely to find companies that have made a contractual commitment to making their websites accessible to be less attractive targets because the work may be completed while the second lawsuit is pending, mooting out the claim.  Ultimately, the best deterrence is having a website that is accessible to users with disabilities.  While there is still no legally-prescribed standard for accessibility (nor, with the present Administration’s actions toward regulations does it appear likely one will issue anytime soon), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, 2.0 Levels A and AA are widely used in the industry as the de facto standard.

Seyfarth synopsis:  A Florida Judge Holds that SeaWorld’s website is not a place of public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA but the decision has its limits.

Defendants fighting website accessibility lawsuits in the past several years have not had a great deal of success, so the recent decision by Florida federal Magistrate Judge Carol Mirando holding that SeaWorld’s website is not a place of public accommodation was a small bright spot — albeit one with limitations.

The disabled pro se plaintiff in this case sued SeaWorld under Title III of the ADA because the business allegedly did not provide him with an electric wheelchair or allow his two service dogs entry.  The court held that the plaintiff did not have standing to bring these claims because there was no threat of imminent harm.  The plaintiff also alleged that SeaWorld’s website was not accessible to individuals with disabilities, although it is not clear how his disability impacted his use of the website.  The court rejected this claim, holding:

“Neither Busch Gardens’ nor SeaWorld’s online website is a physical or public accommodation under the ADA.  The Internet is a unique medium — known to its users as ‘cyberspace’ — located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the internet.  Hence, Plaintiff is unable to demonstrate that either Busch Gardens’ or SeaWorld’s online website prevents his access to a specific, physical, concrete space such as a particular airline ticket counter or travel agency.  As a result, Plaintiff may not plead a claim based on accessibility of an online website under Title III of the ADA.”

In so holding, the court cited to Access Now, Inc. v. Southwest Airlines, Co., 227 F.Supp.2d 1312 (S.D.Fl. 2002), where another Florida district court had dismissed an ADA Title III claim against Southwest because the Southwest website was neither a public accommodation nor was a means of accessing a physical place of public accommodation.  The court in the Southwest Airlines case relied on the Eleventh Circuit holding in Rendon v. Valleycrest Prods., 294 F.3d 117 (11th Cir. 2002). There, the appellate court held that a plaintiff alleging that the telephone screening process for the Who Wants to be a Millionaire gameshow had stated a claim under Title III of the ADA — despite the fact that the telephone was not a physical place — because the screening process was a means of accessing the show which took place in a physical location.

The SeaWorld decision is not surprising in light of the Rendon decision and this pro se plaintiff’s failure to plead that the inaccessibility of the website prevented him from accessing a physical place of public accommodation.  The outcome could have been different if the case had been brought by a different plaintiff who was represented by competent counsel.

Moreover, as we have noted, other judicial circuits such as the First Circuit do not require that a business have a nexus to a physical location to be a place of public accommodation.  Thus, plaintiffs bringing lawsuits about websites that do not have a nexus to a physical place will likely choose those circuits for their lawsuits.  The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) has also made clear its position that a website need not have any connection to a physical place to be covered by the ADA.  Thus, businesses that choose to argue in defense of a lawsuit that their websites are not public accommodations may invite an intervention by the DOJ as we blogged about last month.

In short, many considerations should go into a business’ decision as to whether it should fight or resolve a website accessibility lawsuit.

Edited by Kristina Launey.