By Minh Vu, Kristina Launey and Susan Ryan

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The ADA Title III federal lawsuit numbers in 2019 topped 11,000 for another all-time record.

Plaintiffs filed at least 11,053 ADA Title III lawsuits in federal court in 2019 — 890 (or 8.8%) more than in 2018. This is the highest number since we started tracking these lawsuits in 2013, when there were only 2,722 such lawsuits.  These numbers include Title III lawsuits filed on all grounds — physical facilities, websites and mobile applications, service animals, sign language interpreters, and more.  These numbers do not include the significant number of disability access lawsuits filed in state courts which are much more difficult to accurately track.

[Graph: Total Number of ADA Title III Federal Lawsuits Filed Each Year January 1, 2013 – December 31, 2019: 2013: 2,722; 2014: 4,436, 63% Increase over 2013; 2015: 4,789, 8% Increase over 2014; 2016: 6,601, 38% Increase over 2015; 2017: 7,663, 16% Increase over 2016; 2018: 10,163, 33% Increase over 2017; 2019: 11,053, 9% Increase over 2018]

California, New York, and Florida continued to lead the country with the highest number of lawsuits by a long shot, with 4,794, 2,635, and 1,885 lawsuits, respectively.  These three states saw 84% of all the ADA Title III lawsuits nationwide, with California and New York each breaking their own records for the number of ADA Title III lawsuits, as shown in the graph below.

[Graph: California, New York, and Florida ADA Title III Lawsuits in Federal Court (2013-2019): 2013: CA 995, FL 816, NY 125; 2014: CA 1,866, FL 1,553, NY 212; 2015: CA 1,659, FL 1,338, NY 366; 2016: CA 2,468, FL 1,663, NY 543; 2017: CA 2,751, FL 1,488, NY 1,023; 2018: CA 4,249, FL 1,941, NY 2,338; 2019: CA 4,794, FL 1,885, NY 2,635]

Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey, Colorado, and Alabama also made the top ten but trailed very far behind with Georgia leading the second pack with 243 lawsuits.  Arizona fell out of the top ten with a dramatic decrease in lawsuit numbers (94 in 2018 to 13 in 2019), replaced by Illinois which had 190 lawsuits in 2019 — a 171% increase over 2018.

Businesses in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont continued to be ADA Title III lawsuit-free for the third consecutive year (2017-2019).

[Graph: Top 10 States for ADA Title III Federal Lawsuits 2018 Compared to 2019; CA 2018: 4,249, 2019: 4,794; NY 2018: 2,338, 2019: 2,635; FL 2018: 1,941, 2019: 1,885; GA 2018: 160, 2019: 243; TX 2018: 196, 2019: 239; PA 2018: 129, 2019: 193; IL 2018: 70, 2019: 190; NJ 2018: 70, 2019: 95; CO 2018: 75, 2019: 81, AL 2018: 70, 2019: 79]

For the lawsuit trends in 2019 that drove these numbers, see our year end roundup post.

A note on our methodology: Our research involved a painstaking manual process of going through all federal cases that were coded as “ADA-Other” and manually culling out the ADA Title II cases in which the defendants are state and local governments.  The manual process means there is the small possibility of human error.

By: Minh N. Vu and Samuel Sverdlov

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Purveyors of porn are being sued for offering online videos without closed captioning.

We really can’t make this stuff up. Lawsuits by deaf plaintiffs against public accommodations for failing to provide closed captioning for videos on their websites are not uncommon. But last week, a deaf man sued three porn websites in federal court in New York claiming that online porn videos must have closed captioning which would provide a transcription of any dialogue, as well as a description of sounds in the video. The plaintiff claimed that the porn purveyors’ failure to provide closed captioning on the videos prevented him from full enjoyment of videos such as Hot Step Aunt Babysits Disobedient Nephew – Sofi Ryan – Family Therapy, Sexy Cop Gets Witness To Talk, A— Lesbian Action and Dirty Talk, The Guy Talked a Woman to A— Sex, Daddy 4K – Allison Comes To Talk About Money To Her Naughty Father, 18 YO Blonde Stripper DP in Homemade Gangbang Porn, and Beautiful Newbie Jasmine Interviewed Before A— Crea—e, in violation of Title III of the ADA, the New York State Human Rights Law, the New York City Human Rights Law, and the New York State Civil Rights Law.

Putting aside jokes about whether the dialogue is that critical or how one would describe the various sounds in these videos, these lawsuits do raise some interesting legal questions. For example, are the websites, which are not likely to be associated with any physical place of public accommodation, covered by Title III of the ADA? There is no precedent from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on this issue, though some New York district judges in the Circuit think they are. The porn websites may also contain content posted by third parties for which the sites may have immunity under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, as one Massachusetts federal judge recently found in another case involving closed captioning of online videos posted on university websites.  We’ll keep a close eye on this one and apprise you of any legally noteworthy developments.

Edited by Kristina Launey

By Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth synopsis:  ADA Title III lawsuits flooded federal courts in 2019 and will likely continue to do so in 2020 with new theories for the courts to consider. 

We are still tallying up the end-of-year numbers, but the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in federal courts by the end of November 2019 (10,206) exceeded the number of such lawsuits filed in all of 2018 (10,163).  California courts continue to be the busiest with roughly 43% of the lawsuits, with New York and Florida courts taking second and third place with  24% and 18% of the market share, respectively.  With plaintiffs and their lawyers constantly conjuring up new claims, businesses are not likely to see any relief from these types of suits in 2020.

What types of lawsuits are trending now?

Braille Gift Card Lawsuits.  Starting in October of 2019, more than a dozen blind plaintiffs represented by five attorneys have filed at least 243 lawsuits in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York alleging that retailers and other businesses have violated the ADA and New York state and city laws by failing to offer for sale gift cards that have all the information printed on the cards shown in Braille. These cases are assigned to at least twenty-nine different judges. A firm in southern California has also jumped on the bandwagon, filing Braille gift card lawsuits in California state court and sending out a number of pre-suit demand letters. Most defendants are digging in for a fight so we expect to see many motions to dismiss filed in the first quarter of 2020.

Website and Mobile App Accessibility Lawsuits.  Although we are still tallying the numbers, lawsuits alleging inaccessible websites and mobile apps accounted for at least a fifth of the total number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in federal courts in 2019. Most plaintiffs in these cases are blind and claim that the websites in question do not work with their screen reader software which reads website content aloud. A much smaller number of plaintiffs are deaf and are suing about the lack of closed captioning for online videos.

Plaintiffs continue to file these website and mobile app accessibility lawsuits, though the rate at which they were being filed seemed to slow down in the fourth quarter of 2020. The change may be attributable to the fact that some of the lawyers who were filing many of these website accessibility suits in New York have turned their attention to Braille gift card lawsuits.

The big news from 2019 on the website accessibility front was the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Domino’s appeal from a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowing a blind plaintiff to pursue his lawsuit against the pizza chain for having an allegedly inaccessible website and mobile app. Businesses had hoped that the Supreme Court would hear the case and perhaps take some action to curtail the tsunami of website and mobile app lawsuits.

In 2019, Plaintiffs also made significant headway in persuading California state courts that inaccessible websites violate the state’s non-discrimination statute, including one appellate affirmation of a judgment in favor of blind plaintiff. In fact, one California Superior Court judge decided that the ADA applies to websites of businesses with no physical location where customers go. In reaching this conclusion, this California judge rejected federal Ninth Circuit precedent that the ADA only applies to websites of public accommodations with a nexus to a physical location.

Hotel Accessibility Information on Reservations Websites.  A number of plaintiffs filed lawsuits against hotels for allegedly failing to provide sufficient information about the accessibility of their accessible guest rooms and common areas on their websites, as required by the ADA Title III regulations, to allow travelers with disabilities to make informed decisions about whether a hotel meets their needs. In response to this flurry of lawsuits, many hotels have updated their websites to provide the required information. Now some plaintiffs are filing lawsuits alleging that hotels are not making accessible rooms available for sale on websites operated by third party online travel agencies.

Accessible Hotel Room Dispersion.  Title III of the ADA requires hotels to provide accessible rooms in a range of different room types (e.g. rooms with two beds, premium views, suites) so that people with disabilities have room choices that are comparable to those offered to people without disabilities. One plaintiff in particular has filed more than a hundred lawsuits under this theory, and we have no reason to think she will stop in 2020.

Inaccessible Facilities.  Historically the most prolific category for accessibility lawsuits, we have continued to see in the lawsuit filing numbers and in our practice many lawsuits about allegedly inaccessible physical public accommodations facilities such as hotels, retail stores, restaurants, and shopping centers in 2019. We do not expect this to change in 2020.

***

Be sure to subscribe to our blog to receive notices of developments throughout the year!

Edited by Kristina Launey

By Minh N. Vu and John W. Egan

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Enterprising plaintiffs in New York are suing more than 100 businesses under a new theory – – that ADA Title III requires Braille gift cards.

Between Thursday, October 24 and as recently as last Friday, over 100 putative class action lawsuits (and counting) have been filed against businesses for violations of ADA Title III, as well as the New York State and City Human Rights Laws in the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York.  The complaints are nearly identical and assert the same theory: A business that provides a gift card for purchase, but does not offer a Braille version, is committing discrimination against individuals who are blind or have visual impairments.

There are 11 plaintiffs and 4 law firms that have filed these cases.  Coincidentally, these are the same litigants and attorneys who have filed hundreds of lawsuits against businesses (including some of the same business targeted in these gift card cases) for allegedly inaccessible websites over the past several years.  In fact, based on our research, these plaintiffs and their attorneys, taken together, were responsible for approximately one-third of all federal website accessibility lawsuits filed in New York last year.

Businesses facing a barrage of website accessibility lawsuits and demand letters must now deal with this new threat based on what certainly appears to be a coordinated and wide-ranging legal challenge.

The gift card complaints allege that the plaintiff is blind and contacted the defendant earlier this month to inquire as to whether its gift cards are provided in Braille.  When each defendant allegedly responded that a Braille gift card was not available, the plaintiff commenced a lawsuit shortly thereafter.  The complaints cite at least one retailer that sells a gift card with its name in Braille, recites the ubiquity and importance of gift cards in the retail industry, and relies on the provision of Braille materials as an example of an auxiliary aid or service in ADA regulations.

Without “giving away the store,” we believe that there are compelling defenses to these cases and look forward to how the judges in the SDNY and EDNY will respond.  Stay tuned to the Blog for further updates on this developing story.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey

By Kristina M. Launey and Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis: Website accessibility lawsuit filings in federal court in 2019 are on track to exceed 2018.  Will we see an increase in filings as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the Ninth Circuit’s Order in Robles v. Domino’s?

As of June 30, 2019, we counted 1204 website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal courts since January 1, 2019, for a projected total of 2408 by year end. This would constitute a seven percent increase over 2018’s numbers.

[Graph: ADA Title III Website Accessibility Lawsuits in Federal Court Jan. 1, 2017 to Jun. 30, 2019: 2017: 814; 2018: 2,258, 177% Increase over 2017; 2019: Total: 1,204 as of June 2019, Projected: 2,408, Projected 7% Increase over 2018]

As in past years, New York continued to lead the way, with 676 lawsuits filed from January 1, 2019 to June 30, 2019.  Florida and California followed with 336 and 74 lawsuits, respectively.

[Graph: All States Where Federal ADA Title III Website Accessibility Lawsuits Have been Filed Jan. 1 to Jun. 30, 2019: NY: 676; FL: 336; CA: 74; PA: 44; IL: 30; MA: 19; WI: 8; IN: 6; NJ: 4; CN: 2; TX: 2; DC: 1; ID: 1; VA: 1]

There were 5,592 federal ADA Title III lawsuits of all types (not just website accessibility) filed in the first half of 2019, so website accessibility suits make up roughly 22 percent of the overall number of cases.

For the first time, we looked at website accessibility lawsuits by month for 2019 and there was a significant decrease in the number of filings in September:  From 272 in August to 135 in September. It may be that attorneys were holding off on filing new lawsuits until the Supreme Court issued its decision regarding Domino’s Petition for Certiorari.  On average, seven website accessibility lawsuits were filed in federal court each day in 2019.

[Graph: Total Number of Website Accessibility Lawsuits Filed By Month in 2019 (Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 2019): January: 240; February: 211; March: 185; April: 183; May: 197; June: 188; July: 261; August: 272; September: 135; On average, there were approximately 7 website accessibility lawsuits filed per day.]

Many commentators predict that the U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of review of the Robles v. Domino’s Ninth Circuit decision will result in a surge of website accessibility lawsuits.  To test this theory, we counted the number of lawsuits filed from January 1, 2019 to October 7, 2019 – the date the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.  There were 1906 website accessibility lawsuits filed up to and including October 7, 2019, for a daily average of seven filings. We will see how the post-Domino’s number stacks up in the coming months.

By Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The Supreme Court Leaves the Ninth Circuit’s Robles v. Domino’s decision intact, dashing businesses’ hope for some relief from website accessibility lawsuits.

The Supreme Court today issued its much anticipated decision on Domino’s  Pizza’s Petition for Certiorari in the Robles v. Domino’s website accessibility case, and it is not good news for businesses.  The Supreme Court declined to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision holding that (1) Title III of the ADA covers websites with a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation, and (2) imposing liability on businesses for not having an accessible website does not violate the due process rights of public accommodations even in the absence of website accessibility regulations.  The denial of certiorari means the case will go back to the District Court to be litigated on the merits.  We predict the case will settle soon after remand.

Business groups had hoped that the Supreme Court would take up the Domino’s case and issue a decision that would end — or at least minimize — the tsunami of website accessibility lawsuits that have hit public accommodations nationwide.  That has not happened, leaving the business community with no real options for relief.  The Department of Justice has no plan to issue any regulations on website accessibility and the likelihood that Congress will take any legislative action is low.  The decision is a significant victory for disability rights advocates and the cottage industry of plaintiff’s lawyers who will likely celebrate with more lawsuit filings.

Edited by Kristina Launey and John Egan

By John W. Egan

Seyfarth Synopsis: Businesses are defending record numbers of ADA Title III cases every year.  A recent decision in New York underscores the challenges business face when ADA plaintiffs are more interested in protracted litigation than settlement. 

The number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed annually has increased more than 300 percent in the last five years.  Government officials and a few judges dealing with burgeoning caseloads have taken steps to reign in abuses.  Judges have disciplined attorneys for filing indiscriminate claims without a sufficient basis, state attorneys general have stepped in to curb high volume filers of these cases, and members of Congress have urged DOJ to resolve regulatory uncertainty that has sent the number of website accessibility claims soaring to new heights.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of requirements for physical accessibility with which businesses must comply.  Unlike local building code enforcement, non-compliance with ADA design standards is not simply redressed by a fine.  Violation of these standards can give rise to a lawsuit in which a prevailing plaintiff can recover reasonable attorneys’ fees under the ADA’s fee-shifting provisions and, in some jurisdictions, an award of damages under state and municipal disability access laws.

In addition to fending off an increasing barrage of ADA lawsuits, businesses face the prospect of expending even more resources when the other side resists settlement in favor of litigation.  A New York federal judge recently issued a decision criticizing a plaintiffs-side ADA firm that reportedly had no interest in settling an ADA case, even where the businesses were willing to remediate (and did remediate) ADA violations identified in the Complaint.

In Range v. 535 Broadway Group, LLC, Plaintiff asserted ADA, state and city law claims against a clothing store that occupied two stories in a multi-story, mixed use Manhattan building.  While the case was pending, Defendant remediated nearly all alleged barriers and attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain a settlement demand from Plaintiff.  The court ultimately dismissed the ADA claim, and heavily criticized Plaintiff’s firm in doing so in its opinion.

The court stated that the firm was “impeding the progress of the case” by refusing to provide a global settlement demand and expressing “little interest” in resolving claims over barriers that Defendant had already remediated.  The court cited other reported decisions critical of the firm’s “litigation gamesmanship,” which was reportedly part of its “repertoire” in ADA cases.

After reviewing Defendant’s motion for dismissal based on the pleadings, Plaintiff’s firm requested to amend the Complaint to withdraw the federal claim and assert only state and city law claims for damages.  The court “rejected . . . . that maneuver as a thinly veiled attempt . . . to forum shop and seek a do-over in state court.”  Plaintiff then opposed dismissal of the very same ADA claim he previously agreed to withdraw, and advanced an interpretation of the applicable regulation relating to accessible route requirements for multi-story buildings that was, the court noted, inconsistent with his attorney’s position in another case in the same jurisdiction.  The court went so far as to describe the argument as one Plaintiff’s attorneys “kn[ew] is a loser.”

According to the court, “[s]uch freewheeling advocacy is of no use to a judge, . . . flirts with violating Rule 11 . . . .[,]” and “waste’s everyone’s time.”  The court dismissed the ADA claim, but exercised supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s New York City Human Rights Law claim, which the court held could not be dismissed on a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

Businesses are defending a record number of ADA lawsuits annually.  As a remedial statute that awards attorneys’ fees to a prevailing plaintiff, businesses are often incentivized to reach a settlement before expending significant resources in litigation.  The emergence of plaintiffs-side attorneys interested in pursuing protracted litigation, despite a business’s interest in an early resolution, represents an additional concern for businesses seeking to limit their exposure from predatory ADA lawsuits.

Edited by Minh N. Vu

By Kevin Fritz and Latoya Liang

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the Fourth Circuit in holding that a plaintiff who is legally barred from using a credit union’s services cannot demonstrate an injury in fact that can support standing to sue.  

The plaintiff in Carello v. Aurora Policeman Credit Union, a blind man, sued the Aurora Policeman Credit Union under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) alleging its website was not accessible to him through screen reader software. The plaintiff alleged both dignitary and informational harm.  The District Court dismissed the case for lack of standing. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding neither of these alleged harms satisfied the injury-in-fact requirement to confer standing.

The Court found that the plaintiff could never be a member of the Credit Union because the Illinois Credit Act requires that membership to a credit union be only open to groups of people who share a “common bond.” Accordingly, the Aurora Policeman Credit Union limits its membership to specified local city and county employees, of which the plaintiff was neither.  Instead, the plaintiff was a “tester,” visiting websites solely for the purpose of testing (and suing for) ADA (non)compliance.

While the Seventh Circuit said that dignitary harm can sometimes be a cognizable injury, it concluded that not all dignitary harms are sufficiently concrete to be injuries in fact to confer standing to sue.  The Seventh Circuit said Illinois law prevented the plaintiff’s dignitary harm from ever materializing into a concrete injury because the Illinois Credit Act was a neutral legal barrier, making it impossible for the plaintiff to ever be a customer, and eliminating the personal impact of the injury.  Simply stated, without a connection between the plaintiff and the Credit Union that distinguished him from other members of the public, the plaintiff’s harm was too abstract.

The Seventh Circuit also rejected the argument that that the Credit Union caused the plaintiff informational harm by failing to make the text on its website accessible to his screen reader.  The Court noted that an informational injury only occurs when a defendant refuses to provide a plaintiff with information that a law entitles him to obtain and review for some substantive purpose.  Here, the plaintiff was only complaining about not being able to easily access the information which is publicly available on the website.

The Seventh Circuit’s position echoes two Fourth Circuit decisions which we reported on here.  While plaintiffs will undoubtedly try to limit the significance of these cases, they clearly send a message that judges in these circuits are giving website accessibility cases a hard look before allowing them to move forward.  The plaintiff’s bar will likely respond by avoiding these jurisdictions and filing in more plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions where some district courts have held that the inability obtain information about a business that a plaintiff could never actually patronize is an injury-in-fact sufficient to establish standing.

Edited by: Minh Vu and Kristina Launey

By Minh N. Vu, Julia Sarnoff, Kristina Launey

Seyfarth synopsis: California Court of Appeal affirms ruling that inaccessible restaurant website violated the Unruh Act and orders that restaurant website comply with WCAG 2.0 Level AA.

Before September 3, 2019, there were four substantive California state trial court decisions in website accessibility cases, and the verdict score was tied at 2-2.  Plaintiffs obtained summary judgment in two website accessibility cases concerning the websites of a retailer (Davis v. BMI/BND Travelware) and a restaurant (Thurston v. Midvale Corporation), while defendants secured summary judgment in a website accessibility case concerning a credit union website (the case has been appealed) and a defense jury verdict in a case concerning an inaccessible hotel website. Defendant Midvale Corporation pursued an appeal, which has resulted in very favorable precedent for website accessibility plaintiffs and their lawyers.

In a 33-page published decision, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the California Superior Court’s summary judgment ruling that Midvale violated the California Unruh Civil Rights Act by having a restaurant website that could not be used by a blind person with a screen reader.  The Court of Appeal also affirmed the trial court’s injunction mandating that Midvale make the restaurant website comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA. Because the plaintiff’s Unruh Act claim was based on a violation of Title III of the ADA, the court’s analysis focused on whether Midvale violated the ADA by having an inaccessible website.

Here are some highlights from the decision:

Websites with a physical nexus are subject Title III.  The court held that that Title III of the ADA applies to a restaurant website because the website has a nexus with a physical place.  Citing to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Domino’s, the Court held that “including websites connected to a physical place of public accommodation is not only consistent with the plain language of Title III, but it is also consistent with Congress’s mandate that the ADA keep pace with the changing technology to effectuate the intent of the statute.”  The Court also provided a detailed analysis of when a website has a sufficient nexus to a physical place of public accommodation, noting that a sufficient nexus existed in this action because “the website connects customers to the services of the restaurant.”  The Court declined to consider the plaintiff’s “wholly hypothetical question” of whether Title III of the ADA governs a website unconnected to a physical place of public accommodation offering only purely internet-based services or products.  This ruling is good news (for the moment) for businesses that do not have a physical location where customers go.

Third Party Content.  In response to Midvale’s argument that its website did not really connect customers to its location because customers are directed to a third party reservation service website to make a reservation, the Court of Appeal said “appellant offers no legal support for its theory that it cannot be liable for ADA discrimination if hires someone else to do the discrimination.”  This comment and the related analysis suggest that the court would be inclined to hold businesses accountable for the inaccessibility of websites of third parties with whom they contract to provide services to customers.

Alternative Means of Effective Communication. The court held that there was no triable issue of fact about whether the restaurant’s provision of a telephone number and email address on its website was a reasonable alternative means of providing effective communication because the restaurant’s telephone line and email address were available only during the restaurant’s hours of operation.  Because a sighted individual could obtain information about the restaurant 24 hours a day by visiting the website, the Court reasoned that the telephone number and the email did not provide effective communication in a “timely manner” since “the use of either [the telephone number or email] required [the plaintiff] to depend upon another person’s convenience to obtain information.”  The court did not address, however, whether a toll-free number that is staffed 24 hours a day would have yielded a different outcome.  This leaves open the possibility that a different outcome may be achieved with a different set of facts.

Due Process. The court rejected Midvale’s argument that the trial court violated its due process rights by improperly equating ADA compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA compliance.  While agreeing that WCAG 2.0 AA is not yet a legal standard, the court determined that the trial court “clearly rejected liability based on non-compliance with the guidelines and premised liability on the website’s inaccessibility.”  The court also rejected Midvale’s argument that the trial court’s injunction implies that Midvale should have known WCAG 2.0 AA compliance was legally required under the ADA.  The court found that “the more obvious implication [of the trial court’s injunction] is that the trial court determined appellant could not or would not redesign its website to comply with ADA standards without specific guidance, and so it selected what it believed to be a widely used technical standard to provide the needed guidance.”

WCAG 2.0 AA Injunction Not Overbroad or Uncertain.  The court rejected Midvale’s argument that the trial court’s injunction to make the restaurant website comply with WCAG 2.0 AA is overbroad or uncertain because experts can differ on whether a website conforms to these guidelines.  It reasoned that experts can weigh in on Midvale’s compliance with the injunction and that this should be not be a bar to an injunction because trial courts routinely assess expert testimony.

Standing.  The court held that Midvale forfeited its claim that the plaintiff lacked standing to obtain an injunction because it failed to raise this argument in opposing plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.  However, the court pontificated that the plaintiff did have standing to obtain an injunction under the Unruh Act because she testified that she visited the website multiple times, both before and after the lawsuit was filed, and that she encountered barriers each time.  Additionally, the court noted that the plaintiff testified to having at least some general interest in the restaurant (it was on a list of places she was interested in visiting), and claimed that she was deterred from visiting the restaurant’s website as a result of the barriers she encountered.  It is possible, however, that the court’s finding on the standing issue could have been different, or at least more robustly analyzed, if Midvale had raised these arguments earlier in opposition to the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

This decision and the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Domino’s are both highly favorable to plaintiffs seeking to bring a lawsuit against a business with a brick and mortar presence in California.  Thus, we predict a continued increase in the number of website accessibility lawsuits filed in California state and federal courts unless the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear the Domino’s case and reverses the Ninth Circuit, or Congress takes action to amend the ADA.

By Minh N. Vu and Kristina M. Launey

Seyfarth Synopsis: Congress Members recently renewed their efforts to take legislative action and urge the DOJ take regulatory action regarding physical and website accessibility, respectively.

You have to give them credit for trying.  A group of Senators recently sent Attorney General Barr a letter asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) take action to provide some certainty and relief to businesses regarding website accessibility, and a group of Representatives introduced a bill to provide some relief to businesses from physical accessibility lawsuits.  While we appreciate their efforts, we are skeptical either will gain any traction.

On the topic of website accessibility, Senators Grassley, Tillis, Cornyn, Crapo, Ernst, Blackburn, and Rounds sent a letter dated July 30, 2019 to Attorney General Barr following up on the letter a larger group of Representatives wrote to Attorney General Sessions in 2018.  The letter sought an update and urged “further action to promote greater clarity, compliance, and accessibility” in the area of website accessibility.

The 2019 letter noted Attorney General Sessions’ October 2018 response reiterated the DOJ’s position that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites and that public accommodations have flexibility in how they will comply with the ADA’s requirements.  But, the response conspicuously lacked any indication that the DOJ would provide guidance to businesses on what it means to provide an accessible website.  The Senators’ 2019 letter emphasized the need for DOJ guidance in this area given the increasing litigation and conflicting judicial opinions on whether the ADA applies to websites at all: “Regulation through litigation should not be the standard.”

The 2019 letter closed by requesting information by August 30, 2019 – regarding what specific steps the DOJ has taken to resolve this issue in the past year, and what it intends to do; whether the DOJ considers the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 an acceptable compliance standard for Title III of the ADA; whether a business’ resources should be taken into consideration; and whether the DOJ has considered intervening in any pending litigation to provide clarity or to push back against any identified litigation abuses.

Also on July 30, 2019, Representatives Calvert, Cook, Hunter, Walker, Grothman, Turner, Rice, and Wilson introduced H.R. 4099, the latest effort to provide some relief to businesses from physical accessibility lawsuits – with a bit of web accessibility thrown in.  The bill – dubbed the “ADA Compliance for Customer Entry to Stores and Services Act”, or “ACCESS Act” – would:

(1) Require the DOJ to develop an education program for state and local governments and property owners on “effective and efficient strategies” for promoting accessibility;

(2) Prohibit a lawsuit be filed alleging a violation of the ADA without prior notice be given to the owner or operator of the business and 60 days to provide a plan to cure the violation and 60 days after to make substantial progress on that cure.  The notice must specify in detail how the individual was actually denied access to a public accommodation, whether a request for assistance to remove the barrier was made, and whether the barrier was permanent or temporary.

(3) Require development of a model alternative dispute resolution program, apparently similar in concept to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California’s General Order 56.

(4) Require the Attorney General to complete a study within one year of whether the WCAG 2.0 standards, “accessibility widgets, or providing a telephone number through which members of the public can obtain the same information and services as they would on a website would all provide reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities.”

The first three provisions are very similar to those in the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (HR 620) which passed the House but gained no traction in the Senate.  The fourth provision concerning website accessibility is new.  Requiring Department of Justice to conduct a study on alternative methods of providing access to information and functionality on a website an interesting long-term academic exercise which might someday provide some fodder for the defense bar, but it will do nothing to provide any relief to businesses facing the barrage of website accessibility claims now and in the foreseeable future.  Considering the fate of HR 620, the ACCESS Act is unlikely to become  law (though some state efforts, such as in Ohio, have succeeded).  We will monitor the bill as well as the correspondence between Congress and keep you updated.