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.

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.

By: ADA Title III Editorial Board

Seyfarth Synopsis: Final Rule Setting WCAG 2.0 AA as the Federal Agency Website Standard Published in Federal Register, Triggering Compliance Deadline of January 18, 2018.

Last week we reported that the Access Board announced a final rule, under the authority of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, requiring the websites and electronic content of federal agencies to conform to WCAG 2.0 AA within one year of the date the rule is published in the Federal Register.  This final rule was published in the Federal Register yesterday, January 18, 2017, making the effective date of the final rule March 20, 2017; and requiring compliance with the new rule setting WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard for federal government websites by January 18, 2018.

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: 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:  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.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In yet another effort to reduce ADA lawsuits, California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law – effective immediately – legislation to encourage tenants and landlords to acknowledge and address any accessibility issues during lease negotiations.

On September 16, 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2093 – the second new disability access reform law of the year – in the state’s continuing effort to address the huge number of accessibility lawsuits. This bill, which became effective immediately, seeks to ensure that prospective commercial real estate tenants are notified of known construction-related accessibility violations during the course of lease negotiations so that owners and tenants have the opportunity to decide how any violations will be addressed and avoid future ADA lawsuits.  AB 2093 is similar to a piece of California’s last large-scale attempt at disability access reform, SB 1186 of 2012, which required a commercial property owner to state on a lease form or rental agreement executed on or after July 1, 2013, whether the property being leased or rented has undergone inspection by a certified access specialist.

AB 2093 takes the 2012 legislation one step further and requires commercial property owners to state on every lease or rental agreement executed after January 1, 2017, whether the property being leased or rented has been inspected by a California Certified Access Specialist (CASp) for compliance with construction-related accessibility standards.  If it has, and there have been no alterations affecting accessibility since, the owner must provide the prospective tenant a copy of the CASp report at least 48 hours prior to the execution of the lease or rental agreement.  Any necessary repairs are deemed the responsibility of the owner unless the landlord and tenant contractually agree otherwise.  If the CASp report indicates the property meets applicable accessibility standards, the owner must provide the report and CASp certificate to the tenant within seven days of the execution of the lease or rental agreement.

If the property has not been CASp-inspected, the owner must include specific language in the lease or rental agreement notifying the prospective tenant that: (a) a CASp can inspect the property and determine whether the property complies with construction-related accessibility standards; (b) a CASp inspection is not required by law; (c) the owner may not prohibit the tenant from obtaining a CASp inspection of the property; and (d) the owner and tenant shall mutually agree on the terms of the CASp inspection, including time, payment of fees, and allocation of responsibility for making any required corrections to accessibility violations identified in the CASp report.

Earlier this year, the Governor signed into law SB 269, which largely sought provide small business owners with some relief and protect businesses against liability for certain “technical” violations.  Both bills come on the heels of 2015’s AB 1521, which imposed procedural and substantive prerequisites to a “high-frequency litigant” filing a lawsuit in California state courts.

AB 2093 is intended to raise the issue of the existence of possible violations of the ADA and California accessibility laws during the course of commercial property lease negotiations to encourage business owners to make any necessary repairs in a proactive manner, rather than making repairs as a reaction to a future ADA lawsuit from a plaintiff seeking the $4,000 per violation bounty offered by California’s disability access laws.   Only time will tell if this latest effort at reform will make any difference in mitigating the huge, and growing number of disability access lawsuits in California (and across the country).  For those of you closely following state government attempts to intervene and quell the proliferation of disability access lawsuits, read about the Arizona Attorney General’s recent action here.

Edited by Kristina Launey and Minh Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Massachusetts recently enacted its first statewide ride-sharing law requiring companies like Uber to provide accessible transportation for individuals with disabilities.

On the heels of news that Uber and the National Federation of the Blind (“NFB”) settled their federal court lawsuit in California, which began with a fight over whether Uber is subject to Title III of the ADA as a place of “public accommodation” or a “specified public transportation service,” Massachusetts is taking ride-sharing accessibility matters into its own hands.

Massachusetts enacted its first ride-sharing law last month which – though not the first of its kind – continues the nationwide trend of states and cities implementing ride-share regulations.  What is novel is Massachusetts’s specific prohibition on these companies from discriminating against individuals with disabilities, a requirement that they provide wheelchair accessible vehicles, and a mandate that they provide accommodations to individuals traveling with service animals. Massachusetts’s new law is far broader than the recent California settlement, which was limited to only Uber and an agreement to provide accommodations to individuals with service animals.

The Massachusetts law also prohibits ride-sharing companies from charging higher fares or fees to individuals with disabilities and requires that they demonstrate that they have “an oversight process in place” to ensure their compliance with the new law and with all nondiscrimination laws in all “areas” (which is not defined) in which they operate.  The law also requires ride-sharing companies to have “established procedures governing the safe pickup, transfer, and delivery of individuals with visual impairments and individuals who use mobility devices, including … wheelchairs, … walkers, and scooters.”

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (“DPU”) is responsible for drafting detailed regulations to support and enforce this new law and will likely provide guidance to companies as to the “oversight process” and ‘procedures’.”  DPU has announced that it looks forward to “implementing one of the most comprehensive ride-for-hire laws in the country to support innovation, public safety, and accessibility for those with special accommodation needs.”

The new law also calls for the formation of a task force, which will include a representative of the Disability Law Center, Inc., a Massachusetts non-profit disability advocacy organization, to consider the establishment of a Massachusetts Accessible Transportation Fund.  This Fund will be credited with annual surcharges from ride for hire companies that do not, as determined by the task force, provide sufficient wheelchair-accessible service.  The task force is required to file a report with the Massachusetts Legislature of its recommendations and proposed legislation by July 1, 2017.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The number of access lawsuits has surged in both Arizona state and federal courts, prompting an unprecedented intervention by the Arizona Attorney General.

By our count, nearly 300 ADA Title III lawsuits have been filed in federal court in Arizona this year to date.  This number represents a dramatic increase from 2015 when only 207 lawsuits were filed for the entire year.  In 2013 and 2014, there were only 20 and 8 of such lawsuits, respectively.

Four plaintiffs filed 284 of these nearly 300 2016 Arizona federal court lawsuits:  Damien Mosley (132 suits), Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities Foundation, Inc. (AIDF) (57 suits); Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities LLC (AID) (formerly known as Advocates for American Disabled Individuals, LLC (AADI)) (71 suits); and Santiago Abreau (24 suits).

Even more astonishing is the number of cases AIDF and AID/AADI have filed in Arizona state court under the Arizonians with Disabilities Act (AzADA) since January 2015.  The AzADA is similar to the federal ADA but allows plaintiffs to recover compensatory damages.  Under the ADA, prevailing private plaintiffs can only obtain injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees and costs.

The number of lawsuits filed by AIDF, AID, and AADI in Arizona state court (all in Maricopa County) in 2015 and 2016, according to our own research, are:

  • AID/AADI: 503 cases
  • AIDF: 1121 cases

In total, these plaintiffs have filed 1,624 cases since the beginning of 2015.  Compare that to the 584 suits filed in Arizona federal courts since the beginning of 2015.  Then compare that to the data we’ve collected on lawsuits filed in other states and nationwide.

Apparently alarmed by the number of suits flooding the Arizona court system, the Arizona Attorney General has filed a motion asking the Arizona state court in Maricopa County to consolidate all of the pending cases filed by AADI and to allow his intervention to stop what he calls a “systemic abuse of the judicial system.”  The motion provides two grounds for intervention.  First, it states that these lawsuits “imperils the State enforcement regime established by the Legislature” by signaling to other plaintiffs that it is more profitable to file these private suits than to utilize the state’s investigation and enforcement regime created by the AzADA which provides opportunities for a pre-litigation resolution.  Second, the State of Arizona has a strong interest in how the courts apply and interpret the AzADA’s statutory scheme.

Though outcry over the years over ADA lawsuit abuse has been consistent, as well as multiple legislative attempts at reform with little meaningful effect, we are not aware of any other instance when an enforcement agency has stepped in to address the actions of a serial plaintiff.  We will keep you updated on the developments.

Edited by Kristina Launey.


In honor of the 26th anniversary of the ADA, we are sharing our mid-year count of ADA Title III lawsuits for 2016 and it’s newsworthy:  The number of lawsuits filed in federal court is already at 3,435, up 63% from last year’s mid-year number of 2,114.  If the pace continues, the 2016 total may top 7,000.  To put the numbers into perspective, more lawsuits were filed in the past six months than were filed in all of 2013 when there were a mere 2,722 lawsuits.  The three states with most lawsuits continue to be California, Florida, and New York, but there is a shake-up in the fourth position.  Arizona, with 230 lawsuits, has beaten out Texas.  Based on our own practice, most lawsuits continue to be about physical access barriers but there has been a steady increase in lawsuits about websites that are allegedly not accessible to individuals with disabilities.  We will be provide more analysis at the end of 2016, which promises to be another record-breaking year.