By Minh N. Vu
Seyfarth Synopsis: Courts in the Fourth Circuit are taking a hard look at a plaintiffs’ standing in website accessibility cases.
In a small but potentially important victory for defendants facing website accessibility lawsuits, the Fourth Circuit has issued two decisions upholding dismissal of lawsuits for lack of standing with a well-reasoned analysis that can be applied to the defense of other lawsuits.
The blind plaintiff in Griffin v. Dept. of Labor Credit Union sued the credit union under Title III of the ADA alleging its website was not accessible to him through his screen reader software. Reviewing the district court’s dismissal of the case for lack of standing, the Fourth Circuit held that the plaintiff did not have standing to bring his claim because he had not suffered an injury in fact and was not facing an imminent injury in the future. The Court cited to the fact that the plaintiff could never become a member of the defendant credit union whose membership was limited to current and former employees of the Department of Labor and their immediate families and households. This position contradicts a few decisions from judges in other jurisdictions who concluded that the inability obtain information about a business that a plaintiff could never actually patronize is an injury in fact sufficient to establish standing. Although the Fourth Circuit said its holding was intended to apply narrowly to the scenario before it, its thoughtful elaboration of the standing requirements still provides support for defendants seeking to dismiss cases where the complaint fails to plead a credible desire or need to obtain goods or services from the defendant’s website.
The Fourth Circuit began with the well-established principle that a plaintiff “must allege an injury that is concrete, particularized, and immediately threatening.” The court found that the “inability to obtain information is sufficiently concrete to constitute injury in fact only when the information has some relevance to the litigant.” The fact that the plaintiff could never be a member of the credit union made the information on the website not relevant to him. While most businesses will not have as favorable facts (i.e. a law making it impossible for the plaintiff to ever be a customer), the “relevance” requirement can be applied to other situations and puts the onus on plaintiffs to ultimately put forth evidence that they have a reason or need to actually take advantage of the goods and services offered by a business to have standing.
The court also found that the plaintiff’s injury was not “particularized.” It explained that “[t]here must be some connection between the plaintiff and the defendant that “differentiate[s]” the plaintiff so that his injury is not “common to all members of the public.” In other words, while everyone in the U.S. may have access to a particular allegedly inaccessible website, a plaintiff would have to demonstrate some connection between him/her and the business in order to establish standing. In Griffin’s case, there was no connection because he could never be a member of the credit union.
The court also concluded that Griffin faced no “imminent” harm resulting from not being able to access the website for information because he could never be a member of the credit union in the first place. In response to Griffin’s argument that he faced imminent harm because he was a tester, the court said that while the status of being a tester does not undermine the plaintiff’s standing, it also does not create standing. Testers must still meet the “injury in fact” requirements like all other litigants.
The Fourth Circuit also affirmed the dismissal of the case in Carroll v. Northwest Federal Credit Union on the same grounds involving a blind plaintiff who allegedly could not access the website of a credit union that he could never join.
Plaintiffs may file fewer website accessibility lawsuits in the Fourth Circuit as a result of these decisions, as it appears that that courts in this Circuit will be applying Article III standing requirements more rigorously than courts in other jurisdictions.
Edited by Kristina Launey