Seyfarth Synopsis: In an apparent effort to stop one plaintiff’s lawsuit spree, the Nevada Attorney General moves to intervene in a federal ADA Title III lawsuit arguing that the plaintiff failed to provide notice to the state agency responsible for enforcing Nevada’s antidiscrimination law before filing suit.

On Wednesday, August 9, the Nevada Attorney General filed a motion to intervene in an ADA Title III lawsuit filed by serial plaintiff Kevin Zimmerman who (according the motion) had sued more than 275 Nevada businesses in federal courts in the past seven months.

The motion to intervene argues that Title III of the ADA requires private plaintiffs to – before filing in federal court – provide 30 days’ notice to the state agency responsible for enforcing state laws that prohibit the same type of discriminatory conduct at issue in the federal suit.  The Nevada Attorney General explained that the notice gives the state enforcement agencies an opportunity to conduct their own investigation and take action.  The brief notes that there is an exception to this notice requirement where a plaintiff has actual notice that the defendant does not intend to comply with the law, but Mr. Zimmerman did not plead that he had actual notice of any such intent.  This is an interesting argument that could be a useful defense strategy in some ADA Title III cases, though it has been rejected as the basis for a dispositive ruling by the Ninth Circuit in Botosan v. Paul McNally Realty.

The Nevada Attorney General’s motion to intervene is not the first time that a state attorney general has stepped in to thwart the actions of serial plaintiffs filing accessibility lawsuits.  Last year, the Arizona Attorney General intervened in and secured the dismissal of 1700 cases filed against Arizona businesses under the Arizonians with Disabilities Act (not the ADA), as we reported here.

Stay tuned for more developments in Nevada – a state that only had 6 ADA Title III lawsuits in all of 2016.

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:  The number of federal ADA Title III lawsuits continue to surge, fueled by new plaintiffs, new plaintiffs’ lawyers, and website accessibility claims.

Our 2016 lawsuit count is complete, and the results no less remarkable than prior years.  In 2016, 6,601 ADA Title III lawsuits were filed in federal court — 1,812 more than in 2015. This 37 percent increase continues the upward trend in the number of filings, which we’ve been tracking since 2013.  In 2015, there were 8 percent more Title III lawsuits filed than in 2014.

ADA Title III Lawsuits in Federal Court: 2013-2016: 2013 (2722); 2014 (4436, 63% Increase over 2013); 2015 (4789, 8% Increase over 2014); 2016 (6601, 37% Increase over 2015)
ADA Title III Lawsuits in Federal Court: 2013-2016: 2013 (2722); 2014 (4436, 63% Increase over 2013); 2015 (4789, 8% Increase over 2014); 2016 (6601, 37% Increase over 2015)

California and Florida continue to be hotbeds of litigation, with 2,468 and 1,663 lawsuits, respectively. New York, Arizona, and Texas hold distant third, fourth, and fifth positions.  Here are the numbers for the top ten states:

  1. CA: 2468
  2. FL: 1663
  3. NY: 543
  4. AZ: 335
  5. TX: 267
  6. GA: 193
  7. UT: 124
  8. PA: 102
  9. MN: 96
  10. CO: 92
Top 10 States for ADA Title III Federal Lawsuits in 2016: CA (2468); FL (1663); NY (543); AZ (335); TX (267); GA (193); UT (124); PA (102); MN (96); CO (93)
Top 10 States for ADA Title III Federal Lawsuits in 2016: CA (2468); FL (1663); NY (543); AZ (335); TX (267); GA (193); UT (124); PA (102); MN (96); CO (93)

The number of cases in Utah jumped from only one in 2015 to 124 in 2016 — due almost entirely to plaintiff Carolyn Ford who filed 105 of those suits.  Other states that experienced significant increases include Arizona, California, Colorado, and Georgia.  Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming are the only states that had no ADA Title III lawsuits at all filed in 2016.

What is driving these numbers?  While historically there had been a few predictable plaintiffs and attorneys filing Title III lawsuits, over the past year we’ve seen quite a few newcomers filing (the most common) physical accessibility lawsuits, as well as a recent proliferation of plaintiffs and attorneys filing website accessibility lawsuits.  There were more than 250 lawsuits filed in 2016 about allegedly inaccessible websites and/or mobile apps.   This number does not include the hundreds, if not thousands, of demand letters plaintiffs sent to businesses asserting website accessibility claims.

Plaintiffs who filed more than a hundred lawsuits in 2016 were Theresa Brooke (274), Scott Johnson (258), Howard Cohan (251), Lional Dalton (184), Jon Deutsch (175), Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities LLC/Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities Foundation Incorporated, Advocates for American Disabled Individuals LLC (165), Chris Langer (163), Santiago Abreu (152), Damien Moseley (141), Patricia Kennedy (138), Doug Longhini (114), Andres Gomez (113), and Carolyn Ford (105).  We expect to see fewer suits from Howard Cohan who was the subject of a news expose in late 2016 which showed videos here and here of him not appearing to be limited in his mobility.  Mr. Cohan has filed many hundreds of suits over the years concerning alleged barriers that would affect people who are limited in their mobility.

In 2016, lawmakers in both the Senate and House proposed legislation called the ADA Education and Reform Act designed to, among other things, reduce the number of lawsuits filed by serial plaintiffs by requiring them to give businesses notice of the alleged violations and an opportunity to address them before filing suit.  Those efforts stalled but may gain new momentum with a new administration that is sympathetic to the plight of small businesses and hostile to federal regulation.  There were also state legislative efforts, which will no doubt continue in 2017.

We will, as always, continue to keep tracking lawsuit filings, legislative efforts, and other breaking developments and keep you up to date — as the Title III trend shows no signs of cooling down in 2017.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Google Maps now provides information on accessibility, but the information may not be particularly reliable or useful to gauge accessibility.

The Google Maps app now indicates if a location is “accessible” to wheelchair users.  Here’s how it works: users can now click on various storefronts and other public places within the mobile app, and it will say whether the locations have accessible entrances. The information is listed under the “Amenities” section for each business.

This is not the first time that someone has attempted to provide information about the accessibility of businesses, as we previously reported, but the fact that this is a project powered by Google means it will likely produce information on many more businesses. It raises quite a few questions:

Is the information reliable?  It is our understanding that the information comes from “Local Guides” – users who answer questions in exchange for early access to new Google features. After collecting data over this past year, Google recently added the accessibility information to its popular Google Maps App.  We have very serious concerns about people providing “accessibility” reviews when Google has not provided any objective criteria for such people to use.  Under Title III of the ADA, there are very specific standards used to define whether a business is “accessible.”  We suspect that most of the people providing input on the accessibility of a business do not know what these standards are.  What standards are they using to judge a business’ accessibility?  We don’t know.  The designation also does not necessarily indicate which part of the business is accessible.  Is it just the front entrance?  Restrooms?  Aisles?  Dining area?  The feature does not go that far.  We also find suspicious the fact that the accessibility designation is supposed to indicate that the business is accessible for people who use wheelchairs as well as strollers and canes.  Those three different types of users have very different needs but the designation is one size fits all.

What if a customer thinks that the accessibility designation is not accurate?  The only available feature is “suggest an edit” though it is unclear where these suggestions go.

Will this new feature will be used by serial plaintiffs who are looking for businesses to sue even if they have  no genuine desire to patronize them.  “Google lawsuits” already exist whereby individuals look at aerial screenshots via Google maps to determine whether a business contains certain amenities, like a pool lift for an outdoor pool.  The accessibility designation, or lack thereof, may provide an easier way for serial plaintiffs and their lawyers to conduct an initial screening of their potential targets from the comfort of their homes and offices.

One thing is for certain:  Technological advances have dramatically changed the ADA in many ways: improving the lives of many people with disabilities, creating new challenges for them and businesses, as well as facilitating lawsuits.

Edited by Kristina Launey and Minh Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis: A disability advocacy group behind approximately 1,700 Arizona access lawsuits breaks new ground by filing suit against the Arizona Attorney General, in an unusual counter-attack to the AG’s motion to dismiss those cases for lack of standing. 

As we previously reported here, the Arizona Attorney General (“AG”) responded to a surge of access suits filed in that state’s courts by moving to consolidate and to intervene in all actions initiated by self-styled disability rights advocacy groups, including Advocates for Individuals With Disabilities Foundation (“AIDF”) and David Ritzenthaler.  The state court granted the AG’s motions on September 23.  Soon thereafter the AG filed a Motion to Dismiss and For Judgment on the Pleadings.

In a further twist on this story, AIDF and Ritzenthaler have now sued AG Mark Brnovich in his official capacity for mandamus relief against the AG and for attorneys’ fees and costs.  Specifically, the Plaintiffs seek an order that the AG must initiate an investigation into the violations that have been alleged in approximately 9,000 complaints allegedly filed with the AG’s office.  Plaintiffs argue that the AG is required to investigate such complaints under state law, and has failed to do so. Plaintiff further alleges that non-compliance with the state’s accessibility statute is widespread, apparently citing an AIDF press release.

Whether or not this tactic is an effective litigation strategy remains to be seen.  The AG’s pending Motion to Dismiss challenges both the individual’s (Ritzenthaler’s) and the organizations’ standing to bring their claims under Arizona law.  According to the AG, Arizona has a “rigorous” standing requirement, which the plaintiffs in the consolidated matters fail to meet for several reasons.  First, they fail to allege that they patronized or attempted to patronize the defendants’ businesses.  Second, the AG argues that the plaintiffs fail 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 states 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 asserts that plaintiffs fail to sufficiently allege standing because they did not allege denial of access based upon an identified disability.  In other words, the plaintiffs do not link an identified instance of non-compliance to their particular disability.  Fourth, the AG argues that Arizona does not recognize a “deterrence” theory of standing, which conceivably might overcome other failures in the complaint.  Finally, the AG argued that the consolidated plaintiffs fail to allege the additional standing requirements for injunctive relief, i.e., that the plaintiffs provided prior notice or an opportunity to remediate alleged violations and allege an intent to patronize the businesses in the future.

The AG argues that the various Plaintiffs in these consolidated actions should not be given leave to amend such deficiencies in the pleadings, due to a “documented history of bad faith, abusive tactics, and dilatory motives.”   To support this assertion, the AG notes that plaintiffs have filed over 1,700 deficient complaints in 2016, and have “extracted” about $1.2 million from those lawsuits.  The AG also contends that the plaintiffs’ proposed “Universal Amended Complaint” still fails to adequately plead standing, further demonstrating undue delay.  It also, perhaps, demonstrates futility of amendment under these circumstances.

These, first-of-their-kind, cross actions between an enforcement agency and a serial plaintiff may continue to provide additional data and insight into assertions of lawsuit abuse in the disability access context.   We will continue to monitor these actions and keep posting on developments.

Edited by Kristina Launey and Minh Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Our thoughts on the impact of the election on the ADA Title III landscape.

We now know that January 20, 2017 will bring a definitive regime change. How will this change impact Title III of the ADA, the current litigation environment, and pending Department of Justice (DOJ) regulations and enforcement activities?  Here are our thoughts.

The ADA was created through bipartisan effort, signed into law by President George Bush in 1990.  Since that time, the law has only been amended once – in 2008 – to expand the definition of what constitutes a covered “disability.”  In our experience, politicians are reluctant to take any action that would be viewed as being harmful to people with disabilities.  Thus, earlier efforts to amend the law to curb lawsuit abuse were unsuccessful.  More recently, in response to the surge in the number of ADA Title III lawsuits, business groups have again pushed for reform legislation to address so called “drive-by” lawsuits.  These lawsuits are brought by serial plaintiffs who have filed hundreds of cases and are not likely to be real customers seeking to access the goods and services of a targeted business.  Bills introduced in the House and Senate to address this situation may gain more traction with a Republican President and Republican-controlled Congress.  That said, the Trump administration will have many higher priority items to push through Congress, so we doubt that the law will change any time soon.  Because changes to the law are unlikely, we do not foresee a decrease in the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in the coming years.

The impact of a Trump administration will most likely be felt at the DOJ, which is responsible for issuing ADA Title III regulations and enforcing the law.  The Trump administration will appoint a new Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, as well as the deputies and counselors who will oversee the Civil Rights Division.  The Disability Rights Section (DRS) – which has responsibility for the ADA – is within this Division.

The new Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and his or her political appointees will set the regulatory and enforcement agenda for DRS.  On the regulatory front, DOJ is currently working on proposed rules for websites, equipment and furniture, and movie captioning and audio description.  The new leadership will need to review and provide policy direction on those proposed rules, which could result in further delays.  The review will likely affect the content of those rules as well.  One significant question that the DOJ has posed for public comment concerning the proposed website rule is whether there should be less demanding standards for small businesses.  Although DOJ has, in the past, refused to create less stringent rules for small businesses, a Trump administration may be more sympathetic to the plight of small business owners in these upcoming regulations.

It is also possible that a Trump administration would simply abandon all rulemakings currently under development, given the President-elect’s stated aversion to regulations generally.  Such an action would actually be harmful to businesses which need certainty about their obligations, especially when it comes to their websites.  The absence of regulations has created a vacuum that plaintiffs’ attorneys are filling with a tsunami of demand letters and lawsuits that are catching businesses by surprise.  The issuance of clear and sensible rules would put an end to this chaos, and the Trump administration should instead work quickly to issue them.

With respect to enforcement, a Trump administration may be less inclined than the current one to pursue actions that would expand the existing boundaries of the law.  For example, one DOJ enforcement stance that we have found troubling is its aggressive effort to pressure businesses to immediately make their websites and mobile apps accessible in conformance with a privately developed set of accessibility guidelines, even though DOJ has not issued even proposed regulations that would adopt a technical standard for what constitutes an accessible website and set a date for compliance with that standard.  It is possible that a Trump administration would discontinue these enforcement actions until a final rule is issued, although we would be surprised if this actually took place.

For now, all we know is that there likely be some change, and we will be here to report it to you when it happens.

Florida is one of the top states for ADA Title III filings.  As we previously reported, in 2015, California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Arizona had 3,847 ADA Title III lawsuits.  This accounts for 80% of the lawsuits filed nationwide.  Businesses are complaining, and the news media is paying attention.  Miami Local 10 News, an ABC affiliate, reported on the surge of ADA Title III lawsuits nationwide and three local small businesses that were sued by a serial plaintiff who filed more than a hundred and thirty lawsuits in 2015.  Seyfarth’s ADA Title III Team Leader, Minh Vu, provided legal commentary for the story in an interview with reporter Christina Vazquez.

By Minh N. Vu

Serial ADA Title III lawsuit filer Howard Cohan made local television news last week in a story CBS Action News 47 reported after Mr. Cohan filed 24 new lawsuits against various north Florida hotels.  Seyfarth Shaw’s Title III Team has handled a number of cases filed by Mr. Cohan.  Our search of the federal court docket shows that he has filed 606 lawsuits since the beginning of 2013.

Businesses often ask why the courts would allow a plaintiff with no apparent interest in doing business with the target of these lawsuits to pursue these matters. The reality is that challenging the legitimacy of these cases will almost always exceed the cost of settling the matter.  As a result, most businesses choose the latter, seemingly more practical option, which simply encourages more lawsuits.  On occasion, some businesses targeted by serial plaintiffs decide to fight and have obtained excellent results, as we reported here. However, these cases are the exception.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey

We love fighting – and winning – ADA Title III cases, especially those brought by serial plaintiffs.  But litigating ADA Title III claims, even in serial plaintiff cases, has its risks.  While there is often a compelling business case for fighting, a recent case out of the Southern District of New York illustrates that there may at times also be a business case for settling. 

In that case, Kreisler v. Second Avenue Diner Corp., the district court ordered the defendant who lost (in part) at trial to pay the plaintiff nearly $60,000 in fees and costs.  The plaintiff identified thirteen alleged barriers to access in the defendant’s restaurant, but established only four violations at trial, including that it was “readily achievable” (i.e., easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense) for the restaurant to remediate its restrooms and to construct a ramp to the building’s entrance.  Because the plaintiff succeeded in establishing some access violations, he was a prevailing party entitled to damages (under New York state law), and to attorneys’ fees and costs.  The court did reduce plaintiff’s fee recovery by 30% because he had not been successful on all his claims, but the defendant ended up saddled with a $60,000 fee and cost tab (not to mention defense fees incurred). 

The Kreisler case serves as a reminder that a defendant in an ADA Title III case should consider a number of factors – including the facility and the quality of the plaintiff and his or her pleadings – before deciding whether to litigate or seek early resolution.  An early assessment of those factors, with the assistance of experienced Title III counsel, is essential to developing your strategy for the case.  A defendant that blindly jumps into litigation without doing this assessment may discover that ADA or state law violations do exist and that remediation and settlement would have been far more cost effective and less risky than litigation.   

Investigate, evaluate.  Then decide whether to conciliate and remediate or to put the gloves on and litigate.

By Kristina Launey

Scott Johnson, a prolific pro se serial plaintiff and attorney in California, is now himself a defendant in a suit brought by four former female legal assistants, which contains detailed allegations of sexually harassing conduct by Johnson in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.  From an ADA Title III perspective, the complaint is most interesting for its description about how Mr. Johnson allegedly went about developing information for his many lawsuits.