By Minh N. Vu
Seyfarth synopsis: A New York federal judge invokes the All Writs Act to dismiss a later-filed website accessibility lawsuit against the same defendant to protect the integrity of an existing consent decree that already requires the defendant to make its website accessible.
Businesses that are sued under Title III of the ADA for allegedly having a website that is not accessible to people with disabilities often want to know how they can avoid being sued again after settling a case. A decision issued last week by Southern District of New York Judge Andrew Carter suggests that entering in to a consent decree which requires the defendant business to make the subject website accessible can be an effective way of deterring future lawsuits in federal court — at least for as long as the consent decree is in effect.
In Hanyzkiewicz v. Allegiance Retail Services, the defendant had entered into a consent decree to resolve a prior lawsuit alleging that its website was not accessible in violation of Title III of the ADA. The consent decree required the defendant to modify its websites “to substantially conform to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 and/or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 Level A Success Criteria… so that [they] will be accessible to persons with vision disabilities” by April 1, 2024. The defendant was then sued by a second plaintiff (Hanyzkiewicz) in a new case which made the same claim as the one that had been resolved with the consent decree. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the consent decree in the first case mooted the controversy in the second case. The Court did not agree that the matter was moot because the second complaint alleged that the website still had accessibility barriers. However, the Court dismissed the case anyway, invoking its powers under the All Writs Act.
The All Writs Act “empowers district courts to enjoin actions brought by nonparties when doing so is necessary to protect the court’s jurisdiction over a previously entered consent decree.” The Court found that allowing the second case to move forward “could frustrate the Court’s prior consent decree, and must be enjoined.” The court noted that the second plaintiff had included “a proposed class that is absent from the Consent Decree and seeks materially different remedies.” Accordingly, the court found that “[t]hough plaintiff does not intend to frustrate the Consent Decree, it is entirely possible that her conduct in an ensuing litigation might disrupt the already existing Consent Decree. It is well-settled in this district that consent decrees serve a valuable role in preventing duplicative, harassing, and perhaps frivolous litigation.” On this basis, the Court dismissed the new lawsuit and said the second plaintiff could file a motion to enforce the consent decree under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 71 if she had reason to believe the defendant was in noncompliance.
While not controlling precedent, this decision should deter plaintiffs from suing businesses that are already under a consent decree to make their websites accessible. This deterrence comes with a price, however. A consent decree is a court order, and noncompliance with such an order could result in a defendant being held in contempt and subject to sanctions. Moreover, plaintiffs would still be able to pursue state law claims for damages in state court even if a federal consent decree is in place. In short, when resolving a claim, defendants must consider a number of factors in deciding whether to resolve a claim with a consent decree or settlement agreement.
Edited by Kristina Launey