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: 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: 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.

iStock_000000578266_LargeThe Department of Justice (DOJ) announced today that it filed a lawsuit against the Gates-Chili Central School District in New York because it refused to have its teachers help a kindergarten student with epilepsy and other disabilities manage her service dog. According to the complaint, the young student was non-verbal and could not give the service dog required commands. The student also needed someone to tether the dog to her person at various times during the day. Because the school refused to allow its employees to perform these functions, the parents had to hire a personal aide to perform these functions. According to the DOJ, the District violated Title II of the ADA — the part of the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by state and local governments.

DOJ’s position in this lawsuit is very concerning because the ADA Title II regulations plainly state that “[a] public entity is not responsible for the care or supervision of a service animal.” Giving commands to a service animal clearly constitutes the “supervision” of a service animal that is not required under DOJ’s own regulations, but DOJ has nonetheless filed this lawsuit. The question now is whether the DOJ will similarly interpret the ADA Title III regulations to require employees of public accommodations to supervise service animals as well. Those regulations also contain language stating that businesses do not have to care for or supervise service animals.

We suspect the school will be filing a motion to dismiss shortly and will keep you apprised.

By Minh N. Vu 

Title II Changes Come First: The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced a new July 2013 date for issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to amend its Title II ADA regulations that would address the obligations of state/local governments to make their websites accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.  The DOJ stated that the NPRM will “propose the scope of the obligation to provide accessibility when persons with disabilities access public websites, as well as propose the technical standards necessary to comply with the ADA.”

Then Title III: The DOJ also stated that it will issue a separate proposed regulation in December 2013 to address the obligation of public accommodations (entities that do business with the public) to provide accessible websites and the technical standards that they must follow.

Why the Difference?  It is not clear why the DOJ decided to conduct separate rulemakings for state/local governments and public accommodations, especially since there is no apparent reason why DOJ would adopt different technical standards for the websites of state/local governments versus public accommodations.  In light of that, the technical standards adopted for the former should provide a preview of the technical standards that will be adopted for public accommodations.  As we stated in our earlier blog posts, the standard will most likely be some form of the Worldwide Web Consortium’s (WC3) Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0.