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  • Identify at least two existing regulations to be repealed for each new regulation;
  • Ensure that the total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations, to be finalized in 2017 be “no greater than zero;”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: Fighting a web accessibility lawsuit could invite DOJ’s intervention, as did a Florida retailer’s recent Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

Fighting a website accessibility lawsuit is very tempting to many frustrated businesses, but can be a risky decision. One such risk – Department of Justice intervention in the lawsuit – came to fruition for one such business on Monday in Gil v. Winn Dixie, when the DOJ filed a Statement of Interest in the case pending in the Southern District of Florida.

In the lawsuit, Gil alleged that he attempted to access the goods and services available on the Winn-Dixie website, but was unable to do so using his screen reader technology or any other technology provided on the Winn-Dixie website. Accordingly, he claimed the website is inaccessible in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Triggering the DOJ’s somewhat unexpected involvement in this prolific plaintiff’s (by our count, as of October 20, 2016, Gil’s attorney had filed 43% of the 244 federal website accessibility cases filed this year) lawsuit was Winn-Dixie filing a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.  The DOJ states that Winn-Dixie admitted in the Motion that, through its website, patrons can order prescription refills to be picked up at the store pharmacy; search for nearby stores; and gather information on store hours, products, and services. Winn-Dixie argued that it has “no obligation under the ADA to ensure that Mr. Gil and other blind patrons can access these and other services and advantages offered through its website” because under the Eleventh Circuit law, only physical locations are subject to Title III of the ADA. The DOJ could not stand by and let this position go unchallenged:

“Because Winn-Dixie Stores’ argument cannot be squared with the plain language of the statute, the regulations, or with federal case law addressing this issue, the United States respectfully submits this Statement of Interest to clarify public accommodations’ longstanding obligation to ensure that individuals with disabilities are not excluded, denied services, or treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services, such as accessible electronic technology. This obligation means that websites of places of public accommodation, such as grocery stores, must be accessible to people who are blind, unless the public accommodation can demonstrate that doing so would result in a fundamental alteration or undue burden.”

DOJ’s authority is the ADA’s requirement that public accommodations provide auxiliary aids and services – including accessible electronic information technology – at no extra charge to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities, unless it would result in a fundamental alteration or undue burden.

In response to Winn-Dixie’s position that Title III applies only to its physical location. DOJ cited the language of the ADA which says 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.”  DOJ also argued Title III’s application to the website at issue is consistent with every other court decision to have addressed the coverage of websites with a nexus to brick and mortar locations. DOJ went on to state its view that even websites with no nexus to a brick and mortar location are also covered under Title III of the ADA – a position that has been explicitly rejected by the Ninth Circuit.

Coming on the heels of the DOJ’s intervention in the MIT and Harvard cases, and one retailer’s loss on summary judgment when fighting a web accessibility lawsuit in Colorado Bags N’ Baggage, this case demonstrates that litigating a website accessibility case has broader implications than just winning or losing on the merits.  Few businesses want the DOJ inquiring into their ADA Title III compliance practices, of which websites are only a part.

Edited by Minh Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis: DOJ published regulations today requiring that movie theaters throughout the United States provide closed captioning and audio description to patrons with disabilities for digital movies distributed with these features.

Today, the Department of Justice (DOJ) published its final rule requiring theaters throughout the United States to provide closed captioning and audio description (if available) for movies exhibited in digital format.  The new regulations will take effect on January 17, 2017.

As we covered here, DOJ issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in August of 2014, which proposed rules requiring that theaters purchase and deploy specific equipment to provide closed captions for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, and audio description for patrons with visual impairments.  The proposed regulations also included requirements to advertise the availability of these technologies, and have a staff member on-site to locate, operate, and troubleshoot this equipment.

The final rule adopts many of these proposals, although several were scaled back, presumably in response to public comments submitted by theater representatives, advocates and owners.  DOJ estimates that complying with these regulations will nonetheless cost the industry between $88.5 and $113.4 million over the next 15 years.

We outline the key provisions below.

  1. Applies to All Digital (Not Analog) Movie Theaters

The new regulations apply to movies shown in digital format (i.e. images and sound captured on computer disk rather than film) and not analog format (i.e. 35 mm).  Although DOJ solicited comments on whether to extend the regulations to analog movies, it deferred that issue for future rulemaking.  The final rule cites statistics submitted by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) that 98 percent of indoor auditoriums in the U.S. have already been converted from analog to digital.

The final rule applies to theaters and other facilities that are used primarily to show movies for a fee.  Thus, museums, hotels, cruise ships and other public accommodations that show movies to patrons, but not as a primary means of their business, are excluded.

The new regulations apply to all covered theaters, regardless of seating capacity or the number of screens.  Thus, a small community theater with one or two screens will be subject to the same regulations as a megaplex with over 16 screens.  The final rule does not apply to drive-ins.

  1. Theaters Must Have a Minimum Number of Closed Captioning Devices Based on the Number of Screens

Closed captioning devices provide written text of movie dialogue and sounds (e.g. music, sound effects, identification of which character is speaking) to an individual patron at his or her seat.  Theaters must have a sufficient number of devices on hand based on the number of screens exhibiting digital movies, as opposed to total theater seating capacity as suggested in the NPRM.  The requirements are as follows:

Number of Theater Auditoriums Exhibiting Digital Movies Minimum Required Number of Captioning Devices
1 4
2-7 6
8-15 8
16+ 12

The DOJ commentary cites comments and research that the scoping proposed in the NPRM would have substantially exceeded actual demand for this equipment.

In addition, the final rule provides that theaters can utilize open captioning (where captioning can be viewed by everyone in the auditorium) as an alternative means of complying, but are not required to do so.  To satisfy the requirements with open captioning, the theater must either display open captions at all showings, or activate open captions whenever they are requested by an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing before the movie starts.

  1. Theaters Must Have One Audio Description Device for Every Two Screens

In addition to captioning, the final rule also requires that theaters are equipped with audio description devices that provide spoken narration of key visual elements of a movie, such as the actions, settings, facial expressions, costumes and scene changes.

Theaters must have at least one audio description device for every two screens, but theaters with only one screen must have at least two devices.  DOJ reduced the scoping requirement proposed in the NPRM of one audio description device per screen.

This requirement may be satisfied with existing assistive listening receivers (which amplify sound rather than narrate events that occur on-screen) that theaters are already required to provide, but only if these devices have a minimum of two channels available for sound transmission.

  1. Theaters Must Show Movies with Captioning and Audio Description if Available

If a theater exhibits a movie that is distributed with closed captioning and/or audio description features, then the theater must exhibit that version of the movie at all scheduled showtimes.  DOJ’s commentary provides that this requirement neither prohibits theaters from exhibiting a movie not distributed with captioning or audio description, nor requires that they independently add such features.

  1. Closed Captioning Devices Must Satisfy Performance Criteria

The final rule adopted the performance standards for closed captioning devices proposed in the NPRM, which many industry commenters criticized as vague and subjective.

The new regulations will require that closed captioning devices must:

  • Be properly maintained;
  • Be easily usable by patrons;
  • Be adjustable so that the captions can be viewed as if they are on or near the movie screen; and
  • Provide clear, sharp images in order to ensure the readability of captions.

It is not clear what constitutes an “easily usable” device, for example, or the font size or resolution that provides sufficiently “clear, sharp images” to satisfy these requirements.  These uncertainties may lead to future litigation.  In its commentary, DOJ did note that performance standards for captioning devices are subject to existing regulations that permit, with respect to the maintenance of accessible features, “isolated or temporary interruptions in service or access due to maintenance or repairs.”  28 C.F.R. §  36.211.

  1. Other Technologies May be an Acceptable Substitute for Closed Captioning

Theaters may use technologies other than closed captioning, as long as the technology used provides communication that is as effective as that provided to patrons without disabilities.

  1. Digital Theaters Must Comply with Captioning and Audio Description Requirements by June 2, 2018

Theaters showing digital movies on December 2, 2016 must comply with the final rule’s requirement to provide closed movie captioning and audio description in such auditoriums by June 2, 2018.  If a theater converts an auditorium from an analog projection system to a system that it allows it show digital movies after December 2, 2016, then it must comply with the final rule’s requirement to provide closed movie captioning and audio description in such auditoriums by December 2, 2018, or within 6 months of that auditorium’s complete installation of a digital projection system, whichever is later.  DOJ ultimately rejected the aggressive, 6 month timeframe for compliance proposed in the NPRM.

  1. Theaters Must Have Staff On-Site Who Can Locate, Operate, and Troubleshoot Existing Assistive Equipment by January 17, 2017

At least one person (presumably an employee) who can locate, operate, and address problems with all captioning and audio description equipment must be at the theater at all times.  This employee must also be able to communicate effectively with customers with disabilities regarding the uses of, and potential problems with, captioning and audio description devices.  The final rule also requires that theater staff “quickly activate the equipment and any other ancillary systems,” although neither the regulation nor the commentary address what “quickly” means in this context.

DOJ rejected the suggestion from some industry commenters that the regulations should expressly provide that theaters should not be required to hire sign language interpreters to communicate with deaf or hard of hearing patrons regarding this equipment.  The agency did, however, note in its commentary that effective communication concerning these devices would not require a sign language interpreter, but instead “can easily be provided through signage, instructional guides, or written notes.”

In adopting these personnel requirements, DOJ also apparently relied on comments from individuals with disabilities and advocacy groups who reported that theater staff are generally not properly trained in the use, operation and maintenance of existing assistive equipment.  DOJ declined to impose an explicit employee training requirement in the final rule.

Significantly, theaters that already exhibit digital movies must comply with these requirements by the effective date of January 17, 2017.

  1. Theaters Must Comply with New Advertising Requirements by January 17, 2017

As with the proposed rule in the NPRM, the final rule requires that a theater’s communications and advertisements intended inform potential patrons of movie showings and times must indicate whether each movie is available with captioning and/or audio description.  Although the proposed rule would have imposed this requirement on practically all forms of advertisements, the final rule applies to the box office and other ticketing locations, websites and mobile apps, newspapers and over the telephone.  It does not apply to third party ticket providers or websites if they are not part of, or subject to, the control of the public accommodation.

Theaters that already provide captioning and audio description services must comply with these advertising requirements by the effective date of the regulations.

***

We are continuing to evaluate the final rule and its potential impact on public accommodations.  It is apparent, however, that the regulations, set to take effect three days before the President-elect’s inauguration, will enhance the accessibility of moviegoing in the United States, while also imposing additional costs on the industry in the form of new equipment, employee training, advertising and future litigation.

Stay tuned for further analysis and updates on these new regulations.

Edited by Minh Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis: DOJ announced today an extension to October 7, 2016 for the public to submit comments on the SANPRM for state and local government websites.

In May of this year the Department of Justice surprised us by issuing a Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM), rather than – as all expected – actually issuing a proposed regulation for state and local government websites under Title II of the ADA.  In the SANPRM the DOJ seeks public input on well over 100 of tentative positions that it may take in a proposed regulation, including input on the costs and benefits of such a proposed rule.  The SANPRM imposed an August 8, 2016 deadline for submission of public comments.  Today, the DOJ extended the comment period by 60 days to October 7, 2016 after receiving three comments requesting extensions.  DOJ cited the effect these Title II regulations will have on the Title III web accessibility regulations as a reason for this extension: “[a] Title II Web accessibility rule is likely to facilitate the creation of an infrastructure for web accessibility that will be very important in the Department’s preparation of the Title III Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Web site accessibility of public accommodations.”  DOJ also noted that “further delays in this Title II rulemaking will, therefore, have the effect of hindering Title III Web rulemaking’s timeline as well” – further answering questions we’ve heard from many as to how interdependent these two regulatory processes really are.

This highlights the importance of organizations representing various sectors that own or operate “public accommodations” to weigh in on these important issues – which the DOJ has expressly stated will directly impact it future proposed rule for public accommodations websites, currently slated for 2018.  If your industry association has not drafted comments, this extension provides you the opportunity – there is still time.

For an overview of the key issues that warrant comment by public accommodations now, please see our prior post.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  If you would rather not read the 30-page small print Federal Register notice, this summary will provide you with what you need to know about the Justice Department’s most recent official pronouncement on web accessibility.

As we reported, last week DOJ issued a lengthy Supplemental ANPRM (SANPRM) for state and local government websites, which some commentators have decried as a “do-over.”  This unusual move was a surprise, to be sure, but we do not view it as a complete setback.  The SANPRM appears to be DOJ’s attempt to preview its position on key issues and obtain public comment.  As such, the SANPRM has very serious implications that go far beyond the realm of state and local governments.  The rules that DOJ ultimately issues in the state and local government website rulemaking will likely provide the framework for the proposed rule for public accommodations websites — currently slated for 2018.   Accordingly, public accommodations and the organizations that represent them need to submit comments in response to the SANPRM before the comment period closes on August 8, 2016.

We normally don’t write long blog posts but the lengthy SANPRM — containing no fewer than 123 questions for public comment — warrants an exception.  Below is a high level summary of the key issues, with some of our preliminary commentary:

  • Scope of Regulation. DOJ is considering broadening the scope of the future rule from websites to “Web content.”  This expansion could potentially cover web content that a covered entity places on websites that it does not own or control (g. advertising), and could have far reaching implications.
  • Accessibility Standard. DOJ believes that WCAG 2.0 AA should be the standard for Web content, as we’ve predicted.
  • Compliance Period. DOJ is considering giving public entities “two years after the publication of a final rule to make their Web sites and Web content accessible in conformance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA, unless compliance with the requirements would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service, program, or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.”  This begs the question of why DOJ’s enforcement attorneys have been demanding that businesses and state local governments make their websites comply with WCAG 2.0 AA right now.  The two-year proposal is a shift away from DOJ’s initial, 2010, ANPRM position where it contemplated different compliance dates for existing web pages versus new webpages or websites.  The SANPRM also notes DOJ is considering a longer three-year compliance period for captioning of live audio content.
  • Consultants. DOJ wants to know if there is a shortage of consultants who can bring Web content into conformance with the proposed WCAG 2.0 AA standard.  Rather than rely on anecdotal comments, we suggest that DOJ canvas the field of such consultants and interview them to see if they are actually qualified.  DOJ will likely learn that there are very few truly experienced digital accessibility consulting firms – certainly not enough to assist the thousands of state and local governments, let alone the millions of public accommodations that will most certainly need guidance.
  • Less Demanding Standard for Small Entities. DOJ is considering whether “small public entities” or “special district governments” should have a different compliance timetable or be subject to a less demanding standard such as WCAG 2.0 A, as opposed to AA.  This approach could set the precedent for small businesses in a future proposed rule applicable to public accommodations.
  • Possible Exemptions. DOJ is considering exempting the following Web content from compliance with the proposed WCAG 2.0 AA standard:
    • Archived Web Content. To be considered “archived Web content,” the content would have to be (1) maintained exclusively for reference, research, or recordkeeping; (2) not altered or updated after the date of archiving; and (3) organized and stored in a dedicated area or areas clearly identified as being archived.  Covered entities would still have to provide accessible versions of this content if someone asks for it.
    • Conventional Electronic Files (g. PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PPT presentations) that existed on a Web site before the compliance date of any proposed rule.
    • Third-party Web Content Linked from the Public Entity’s Website. Note, however, there would be no exception for linked Web content if the public entity “uses the third-party Web site or Web content to allow members of the public to participate in or benefit from the public entity’s services, programs, or activities.”  For example, if the state parking enforcement authority contracts with a third party to process parking ticket payments on a third party site, that site would also need to conform to WCAG 2.0 AA.
    • Third Party Content. A public entity would not have to make content that is posted on its website by third parties conform with the proposed standard, unless the information is essential for engaging in civic participation or if the Web site owner has chosen to include the third party content on the Web site.  This proposal strikes us as highly ambiguous.  Would YouTube have to provide captioning for every video posted by third parties because it has chosen to invite such third parties to post the videos?  Would allowing people to post be considered an affirmative choice by the website owner triggering the compliance obligation?  What if a website owner needs to include key third party content on its site but the vendor but the vendor won’t agree to make it accessible?  Would the website owner be barred from including this third party content on its website, even if no vendor will provides it?
  • Social Media Platforms. DOJ considers social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn to be covered by Title III of the ADA and proposes to not address the use of these platforms by state and local governments (subject to Title II) in this rule.  However, DOJ says that any information provided by public entities on those social media platforms must also be available in some alternative way if the platforms are not accessible.
  • Web content of Educational Institutions. DOJ is considering requiring educational institutions to make all content available to the public (as opposed to exclusively for students) on their Web sites conform to WCAG 2.0 AA.   Universities should be gearing up to fight this proposition vigorously because their websites tend to be vast repositories of information (some of which may never be accessed or viewed), including thousands of videos, that would have to be made to conform to WCAG 2.0 AA.  DOJ said that content relevant to a particular student or parent must be made accessible on demand “in a timely manner.”
  • Conforming Alternate Versions of Web Pages and Web Content. DOJ may permit the use of conforming alternate versions of a Web page and/or Web content (1) when it is not possible to make Web content directly accessible due to technical or legal limitations; or (2) when used to provide access to conventional electronic documents.
  • Undue Burden and Fundamental Alteration Defenses. DOJ is considering the use of these defenses as grounds to not make Web content conform to WCAG 2.0 AA, but (1) the burden of proving defense would remain on the public entity; (2) the decision that compliance would result in such alteration or burdens must be made by the head of a public entity or his or her designee after considering all resources available for use in the funding and operation of the service, program, or activity; and (3) the decision must be documented with a written statement of the reasons for reaching that conclusion.  Moreover, the public entity still has to take any other action that would not result in such an alteration or such burdens.  Moreover, the public entity still has to provide access in some alternative fashion unless doing so would also result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service, program, or activity or undue financial and administrative burdens.
  • Does Compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA Satisfy a Public Entity’s ADA Obligations? Not entirely.  DOJ says that a public entity would not be required to go beyond this standard even if a person with a disability is unable to access the Web content.  However, the public entity would still have to utilize an alternative method of providing the individual with a disability equal access to the information, service, program, or activity on its Web site unless the public entity can demonstrate that alternative methods of access would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of the service, program, or activity or undue financial and administrative burdens.
  • Measuring Compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA: DOJ is seeking public comment on how compliance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA should be assessed or measured, particularly for minor or temporary noncompliance.  Should the measurement be based on the percentage of Web content that is accessible, or some minimum threshold of compliance?  The DOJ also wants to know if there are circumstances where Web accessibility errors may not be significant barriers to accessing the information or functions of a Web site.  We strongly believe that the regulations must contain a clear statement that temporary noncompliance is not a violation of the ADA.  Websites change all the time and there are bound to be bugs and issues that come up.  And, guidance on how compliance with the standard will be measured given the dynamic nature of websites is essential.
  • Coverage of Mobile Apps.  DOJ asks whether its rule should cover mobile apps and which standard should be used. DOJ specifically called out WCAG 2.0, the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, the Authoring Tools Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, or ANSI/Human Factors Engineering of Software Interfaces 200 as possible accessibility requirements for mobile apps.

As you can see, there are a many issues requiring public comment in the SANPRM.  State and local governments, persons with disabilities, digital accessibility experts, vendors of third-party content  and public accommodations all need to engage in this process and provide their input.  If you have questions about the SANPRM or how to get involved in making comments, feel free to contact us or your favorite Seyfarth attorney.

This morning, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, DOJ participated by issuing its Spring 2016 unified agenda, including upcoming regulatory actions on web accessibility and movie captioning.

Click on the links to the right in the bullets below for the lowdown on each rule, but here are a few highlights:

AA65: State and Local Government web accessibility regulations.  No need to follow this like a bloodhound; the DOJ just issued a Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which we reported here.  Watch this space for an imminent detailed blog on the SANPRM – so you don’t have to slog through the 30 pages of small print.  The comment period closes in August 2016, and the NPRM is due out in July 2017, with comment period on the NPRM to end in September 2017.

AA60: Regulation to reflect statutory amendments to the definition of disability applicable to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. NPRM due in July 2016, with final action expected by years’ end.

AA59:  Regulations to clarify terms within the definition of disability and to establish standards that must be applied to determine if a person has a covered disability under Title II and Title III, due to statutory changes made in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Final rule due May 2016 (like, now!)

AA63:  Movie Captioning and Audio Description regulations.  The final rule is due July 2016; read our take on these regs here.

  • DOJ/CRT – Prerule Stage – Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability: Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Governments: 1190-AA65
  • DOJ/CRT – Proposed Rule Stage – Implementation of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973): 1190-AA60
  • DOJ/CRT – Final Rule Stage – Implementation of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (Title II and Title III of the ADA): 1190-AA59
  • DOJ/CRT – Final Rule Stage – Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Movie Captioning and Audio Description: 1190-AA63

So it’s possible we could have several interesting things happen in 2016.  Do we believe that everything will come out when DOJ says it will?  No.  No, we do not, if history is any indication.  Will we (Susan Ryan) check these diligently every day like our old friend Sisyphus with his boulder?  Yes.  Yes, she will.

Oh, and in case you remember that old chestnut AA61, the Title III almost-proposed web regulations (which we’ve reported on ad nauseum), that apparently does not merit an entry in the Unified Agenda.  The focus is all Title II (AA65) now.  There’s a mention of the Title III almost-proposed regulations in the AA65 write-up, but no indication of any status.

Stay tuned… and if you’re not taking advantage of any of the great information provided by various entities as part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day – all about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) accessibility and users with different disabilities, check it out: http://www.globalaccessibilityawarenessday.org/!

Time concept: Hourglass on computer keyboard backgroundSeyfarth Synopsis: Public entities and private businesses have been waiting for years – since 2010 – for the Department of Justice to issue regulations setting a standard for website accessibility.  The DOJ has announced that it is stepping backward rather than moving forward in that process, withdrawing its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Title II regulations applicable to public entities, and issuing a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking further comments and input.

We’ve been anxiously awaiting the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) issuance of Title II public entity website accessibility regulations – as a precursor to Title III regulations that would apply to businesses.  Apparently the wait will continue.  On Friday the DOJ announced that on April 28, 2016, it withdrew its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) titled Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities (RIN 1190-AA65).  DOJ had submitted the NPRM to the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) for review pursuant to Executive Order 12866 on July 9, 2014.

DOJ also issued a Supplemental Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“SANPRM”) titled Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities.  Its stated intent with the SANPRM is to solicit additional public comment on various issues to help DOJ “shape and further its rulemaking efforts,” citing evolutions (availability, less expensive, more widely used) in the internet, accessibility tools and assistive technologies in the six years since DOJ issued its 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“ANPRM”) as the reason for this redux.  DOJ stated its expectation that public comments on the SANPRM “will be more detailed and focused than those received in response to its original 2010 ANPRM.”  As one commentator in the web accessibility community characterized the action: “DOJ: Because the web’s changed in the SIX YEARS we’ve been delaying regulations, we’re going to TOTALLY START OVER!”

The DOJ offered examples of what it seeks in the SANPRM:

  • More specific information relating to the potential application of technical accessibility requirements to the web sites of public entities under title II of ADA.
  • Information on the appropriateness of setting alternative requirements for small public entities.
  • Precise information on the costs and benefits of web accessibility that will aid in its preparation of a regulatory impact analysis.
  • More information about specific benefits, including benefits to persons with particular types of disabilities, and input on how to measure the benefits of web accessibility.
  • More information about the current level of accessibility of public entities’ web sites, including the experiences of people with disabilities accessing public entities’ web sites.
  • Specific data on the costs of web accessibility and suggestions about how to measure those costs.

In addition to the SANPRM, the DOJ stated its intent to conduct research and studies to better understand the benefits and costs of a Web accessibility regulation – as if, after all this work, it may decide a regulation governing web accessibility may cost more than the benefit it would bring?

DOJ concludes its press release on this shocking development by noting that “web accessibility continues to remain a critical component of public entities’ obligation to provide equal access to their programs, services, and activities under the ADA.”

This will no doubt have an effect on the development of Title III regulations as well.

Seyfarth Synopsis: NYC recently passed a law requiring that its government agency websites meet accessibility standards.  Other state and local governments may follow NYC’s lead and enact accessibility standards for government agencies, contractors and even public accommodations in the absence of regulations from DOJ.

On March 14, New York City became the first major municipality in the United States to adopt legislation mandating accessibility standards for all of its government agency websites.  Serving a population of over 8 million, the New York City government includes more than 120 agencies staffed by approximately 325,000 employees.  This legislation will have an impact on City agencies, and access for persons with disabilities to those institutions.  It may also have an impact on future website regulations impacting businesses across the country.

Recent NYC Legislation

The website legislation (Intro. 683-A) was among three disability access bills that Mayor Bill De Blasio signed into law on the same day.  In addition to mandating website protocols, the legislation requires that each City agency designate a “disability service facilitator,” and publicize, among other things, the availability of wheelchair access, communication access real-time translation, sign language interpretation, assistive listening systems (e.g. loop technology), and any other accommodations to be made available for all public events.  This sweeping legislative mandate also expressly requires that City government websites display New York State’s controversial “Accessible Icon” (rather than the International Symbol of Access), to designate venues for government meetings or other events that are accessible to wheelchair users.

NYC Must Adopt an Accessible Website Protocol within 6 Months 

The new City law underscores that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA (“WCAG 2.0 AA”) is increasingly becoming the de facto standard for website accessibility, despite the continued lack of any regulations from the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) setting a legally-required standard for state and local governments under Title II of the ADA, or for public accommodations (i.e. private businesses) under Title III.

Under the new law, the City must establish a website protocol within 6 months that incorporates: (1) Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 508”); (2) WCAG 2.0 AA; or (3) any “successor” standards.  The Section 508 standard applies to the federal government websites and  consists of a list of 16 requirements that are less rigorous than WCAG 2.0 AA.  But last year the Access Board proposed a rule that would, among other things, adopt WCAG 2.0 AA as the new website standard under Section 508.  Thus, if the City incorporates Section 508 in its website protocol, its agency websites may be subject to WCAG 2.0 Level AA once the final Section 508 regulations are issued.

There are several exceptions to the new accessibility mandate.  The City may adopt protocols that differ from Section 508, WCAG 2.0 AA, or any successor standard, but if it does, it must first consult with experts in website design, conduct a public hearing, and ensure that any differences will still provide effective communication for persons with disabilities.  In addition, the law does not require the “fundamental alteration” of any service, program, or activity, and shall not impose an “undue financial or administrative burden.”

Potential Impact on Businesses

The adoption of accessibility standards for government websites in the most populous city in the United States is significant.  Other municipalities may follow New York City’s lead and pass their own legislation or regulations for accessible features in government websites.  This may result in differing local standards across jurisdictions, which would undermine DOJ’s efforts to implement a comprehensive, national set of rules for website accessibility under Title II of the ADA.

State and local legislators may decide to extend the WCAG 2.0 AA’s reach to the websites of private businesses doing business with state or local governments, or the public, after they are done dealing with their agency websites.  This could follow the model of Ontario, Canada, where the provincial government enacted regulations requiring businesses with 50 or more employees in Ontario to ensure that their websites meet WCAG 2.0 Level A guidelines (and to meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA by 2021).  Based on the progressive legislative and regulatory agenda of the current mayoral administration, we would not be surprised if New York City passed a future law requiring that government contractors or businesses with a presence in the City provide accessible websites.

The bottom line is that if DOJ continues to delay in issuing proposed rules for website accessibility, states and local governments may step into that void and enact rules of their own for government entities, contractors, and even public accommodations.  This could subject businesses to potentially inconsistent rules across jurisdictions.  It is yet another reason why DOJ guidance on this topic is needed now more than ever.

Edited by Minh Vu and Kristina Launey.

By Kevin Fritz

Gavel on sounding blockWhen people think of the term “public accommodation,” images of restaurants, storefronts, and hotels come to mind.  The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) recent Consent Decree with a moving company provides an important reminder that service providers can also be considered a “place of public accommodation” covered by Title III of the ADA.  Title III of the ADA defines “public accommodation as twelve categories of places,” including “service establishments.”  In this case, the DOJ considered a moving company such an establishment, even though moving services are not provided at the company’s place of business.

The DOJ began investigating Kemper Moving d/b/a Two Men and a Truck after a woman filed a complaint alleging that Kemper Moving refused to complete her scheduled move upon discovering that she had Hepatitis-C.  The Kemper Moving manager advised the on-site movers to deliver the plaintiff’s pre-loaded items to her mother’s home and advised them to return to the office without completing the rest of the scheduled move.

The DOJ found that Kemper Moving had in fact discriminated against the complainant by cancelling the move because of the customer’s Hepatitis-C.  To resolve the matter, the moving company agreed to enter into a two-year consent decree filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama under which it will adopt non-discrimination policies and implement a training programs consistent with Title III of the ADA.  The moving company must also pay $10,000 in compensation to the complainant and a $3,500 civil penalty to the federal government. The decree also requires the company to hire or designate an ADA compliance official responsible for reviewing all disability-related decisions.

What are the takeaways from this case?  First, a decision to deny anyone service because of a disability should be scrutinized carefully.  Second, such decisions must be based on real danger, not on unfounded fears or stereotypes.   Third, service providers can be covered by Title III of the ADA, even if they provide services at locations that they do not own, lease, or control.

As we reported in July of 2014, the DOJ is working on final regulations that would require movie theatres with digital screens to show movies with closed captioning and audio description.

At a cost to the industry that DOJ estimated will be between $138.1 and $275.7 million, the proposed regulations would require that all movie theatres with digital screens (other than drive-ins) provide a minimum number of devices for visually and hearing impaired moviegoers based on seating capacity, acquire movies with these features where available, ensure that there is at least one person on-site to locate and operate this equipment, and inform customers of the availability of these features in movie times shown in wide variety of advertising materials.

We just learned that a draft Final Rule has gone to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review, which is the final stage of the rulemaking process.  The projected Final Rule publication date is May of this year.  That said, these projected dates have often been moved before (especially when it comes to website regulations), so we are not holding our breath.

Stay tuned to the blog for more updates.

Edited by Kristina Launey and Minh Vu.