Legislative/Regulatory Actions

Seyfarth Synopsis: Florida’s recently-enacted House Bill 727 gives businesses a way to deter serial plaintiffs from suing them in Florida courts.

Watching businesses deal with the at least 1,663 ADA Title III access suits filed in federal court in Florida in 2016 motivated Florida legislators to take action with House Bill 727 (“HB 727”) which went into effect on July 1, 2017. One of bill’s sponsors, Rep. Tom Leek, claims that “[t]his law give the ADA back to the people for whom it was written, Americans with disabilities.” We are not quite so optimistic.

Under HB 727, a business that hires a “qualified expert” to inspect its premises to either verify conformity with ADA facilities access requirements, or to develop a compliance plan, can have that information considered in a lawsuit filed in a court within the state of Florida, provided that the certificate of conformity or remediation plan has been filed with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (the “DBPR”). The court “must consider” any such remediation plan or certificate of conformity “and determine[s] if the plaintiff’s complaint was filed in good faith and if the plaintiff is entitled to attorney fees and costs.”

Here’s how it would work: An owner of a place of public accommodation pays a “qualified expert” to inspect its premises. If the expert concludes that the facility complies with the ADA, the business can submit a “certificate of conformity” to the DBPR stating that the premises conforms to Title III.  Certificates of conformity are valid for three years and must include: the date that the premises was inspected, the name of the “qualified expert,” proof of the expert’s qualifications, and a statement from the qualified expert attesting that the information contained in the certificate is complete and accurate.

Businesses whose facilities do not fully comply with the ADA can submit a remediation plan to the DBPR indicating that the facility intends to conform with ADA requirements within a reasonable amount of time that does not exceed 10 years. In addition to the requirements applicable to the certificate of conformity, the remediation plan must include the specific remedial measures that the place of public accommodation will undertake, and the anticipated date of completion.

To be a “qualified expert,” one must be a building code inspector, architect, engineer, contractor, or “person who has prepared a remediation plan related to a claim under Title III … that has been accepted by a federal court in a settlement agreement or court proceeding, or who has been qualified as an expert in Title III … by a federal court.” This means that an experienced defense attorney who has prepared a remediation plan for a court approved settlement could be considered a “qualified expert.”

HB 727 is not likely to have much impact on the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in Florida for several reasons. First, the law will likely only apply to ADA lawsuits filed in state court, and most ADA Title III lawsuits are filed in federal court. This is because under the Supremacy Clause of the United States constitution, Florida state’s requirement that a court must consider remediation plans and certifications of conformity are likely preempted by the ADA and will not be applied to a plaintiff’s federal lawsuit. Second, given that HB 727 does not explicitly render an access lawsuit moot just because there is a remediation plan or certificate of conformity on file, businesses will be reluctant to publicize access barriers in their facilities in a publicly-filed document, which plaintiffs can still use to sue them. Third, having a court consider the existence of a remediation plan or certificate of conformity in deciding whether to award a plaintiff attorneys’ fees is not likely to deter plaintiffs who know that defendant businesses will need to spend a lot of money litigating before a court ever considers either of these documents.  Fourth, HB 727 does nothing to address the explosion of website access litigation under the ADA in Florida which has been a key driver in the increased number of lawsuits in the past 12 months. Indeed, as we have previously reported (here and here), California has similar legislation to HB 727, yet California still had approximately 2,468 ADA Title III filings in federal court in 2016 and continues, along with Florida, to be a hotbed for ADA Title III litigation.

Disabled sign pinned on cork noticeboard

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Recent guidance from the U.S. Access Board makes it more difficult for businesses to argue that the Accessible Icon constitutes “equivalent facilitation” under the ADA, even though jurisdictions such as New York and Connecticut require the use of this alternative disability access symbol.

As we previously reported, New York State and more recently, Connecticut, passed legislation requiring the use of the “Accessible Icon” in lieu of the traditional International Symbol of Access (“ISA”) in new construction and alterations whenever an accessibility sign is required by code.  But Title III of the ADA and the Architectural Barriers Act (“ABA”), which apply to public accommodations facilities and federally-funded facilities, respectively, still require the use of the ISA.  Specifically, the ADA and ABA require that the ISA be used to label and provide direction to certain accessible spaces and elements, such as restrooms, parking spaces, and check-out aisles.

This conflict has presented a quandary for businesses: Display the ISA as the ADA requires; display the Accessible Icon, as state or local codes require; or, display both symbols, which would multiply costs, negatively impact aesthetics, and potentially confuse patrons.

Last week, the U.S. Access Board, the federal agency that drafted the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (which the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) incorporated into its ADA Title III regulations) and also sets accessibility standards for federal agencies, issued a Guidance stating unequivocally that “the ISA must be used even where a state or local code or regulation specifies a different symbol.”  Although the DOJ, not the Access Board, enforces Title III of the ADA and the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the Guidance could be considered by a court in a Title III enforcement action, given the Access Board’s relevant expertise.

Is the ISA Really Outmoded?

The Accessible Icon Project began as a “street art” campaign that was apparently intended to replace the “traditional,” static figure displayed in the ISA with a more active, dynamic and positive depiction of individuals with disabilities.

The ISA (left) and the Accessible Icon (right)

The effort to replace the ISA with the Accessible Icon has faced recent hurdles.  In May 2015, the Federal Highway Administration (“FHA”) issued an Interpretation Letter stating that the use of alternative symbols of accessibility are not acceptable for traffic control device applications because they are not “unmistakably similar” to the ISA.  The agency went one step further, commenting that the use of non-conforming symbols, including “by approval of local authority,” “compromises the enforceability of these devices.” (emphasis added)  The Interpretation Letter also noted that the Access Board has not adopted or endorsed any alternative designs.

Access Board: the ISA is Still the Recognized Symbol of Accessibility

The Access Board’s Guidance states that the ISA has become a “worldwide” symbol that “reflects considerable analysis by, and consensus of, an international collection of technical experts,” including the International Organization for Standardization, which is a non-governmental organization that represents over 160 national standard-setting agencies.  In addition to the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s ADA Standards, ABA, International Building Code (“IBC”), National Fire Protection Association Standards, and ICC A117.1 also require the ISA.

No Endorsement of the Accessible Icon as “Equivalent Facilitation”

Businesses in New York or Connecticut where they are required by new state laws to use the Accessible Icon in new construction and alterations could display the Accessible Icon and take the position that its use satisfies the “equivalent facilitation” provision in Section 103 of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.  Under Section 103, businesses may use “designs. . . as alternatives to those prescribed [by the ADA], provided they result in substantially equivalent or greater accessibility and usability.”  However, no court or agency has ruled on this issue.  The Guidance does not comment on whether the Accessible Icon would constitute “equivalent facilitation” but instead defers to the courts, and encourages those advocating for a new symbol to contact the International Organization for Standardization.

The Guidance stresses the value of uniformity and recognition over what some believe is a negative (or at least limiting) depiction of individuals with disabilities.  The ISA “promotes legibility, especially for people with low vision or cognitive disabilities,” according to the Guidance.  This supports the Access Board’s conclusion that, irrespective of conflicting state or local requirements, businesses must display the ISA where required by federal standards.

Businesses Should Carefully Consider the Use of the Accessibility Icon in Future Projects

The situation is confusing, but one thing is clear:  Businesses that do not use the traditional ISA symbol where it is required by federal law face litigation exposure under Title III of the ADA, and the Access Board’s Guidance makes the “equivalent facilitation” argument more challenging.  Businesses in New York and Connecticut should seek guidance on whether local permitting authorities have the ability to waive the Accessible Icon requirement, the consequences of not using the Accessible Icon, and the implications of using both the Accessible Icon and the ISA.

Edited by Kristina Launey and Minh Vu.

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:  DOJ announces that proposed rules for state and local government websites will issue July 2017.

The DOJ announced last week in the federal government’s Unified Agenda that it will be issuing a proposed rule for state and government websites in July 2017.  The Unified Agenda provided no date for the proposed rule for public accommodations websites, however.  As we reported previously in May the DOJ had issued a Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM) for the state and local website rulemaking  in which it stated that the results of that rulemaking would “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.”   The SANPRM posed more than 120 questions for public comment, the period for which closed on October 7.

Given the many delays in the state and local government website rulemaking which started in 2010, we have little confidence that a proposed rule will really issue in July 2017.  Furthermore, the projected July 2017 date was likely set before the election which injects additional uncertainly for the reasons we discussed in a prior post.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

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: 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.

Seyfarth Synopsis: New Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Regulations will require covered entities providing health care programs and services have accessible electronic information technology, including accessible websites.

While we continue to wait for new regulations for the websites of state and local governments, federal agencies and public accommodations, two new regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) strongly suggest that health care provider websites must conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA to meet their non-discrimination obligations.

Effective July 18, 2016, a new “Meaningful Access” rule interpreting the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Section 1557 Anti-Discrimination requirements will require providers of health care programs and services that receive federal financial assistance comply with new requirements for effective communication (EIT) (including accessible electronic information technology), and physical accessibility.  Because most health care providers do receive federal funds through Medicare reimbursements, this rule has broad coverage.  Effective July 1, 2017, new Medicaid rules will require managed care programs to have (EIT) that complies with “modern accessibility standards,” and impose other effective-communication requirements such as large print and other alternative formats.

Section 1557 of the ACA requires covered entities to ensure that health programs and services provided through EIT be accessible to individuals with disabilities unless doing so would result in undue financial and administrative burdens (in which case the entity must provide the information in an equally accessible alternative format) or a fundamental alteration in the nature of the health program or activity.   HHS did not specify a website accessibility standard in the new rule.   However, the agency said that compliance with accessibility requirements would be “difficult” for covered entities that do not adhere “to standards such as the WCAG 2.0 AA standards or the Section 508 standards,” and “encourages compliance” with these standards. Moreover, recipients of federal funding and State-based Marketplaces” must ensure that their health programs and activities provided through websites comply with the requirements of Title II of the ADA — requirements that are the subject of a pending rulemaking at the Department of Justice.  The Rule also requires providers to give “primary consideration” to the patient or customer’s auxiliary aid or service for communication.

The new Medicaid Rule will require that entities providing managed care programs provide information in a format that is “readily accessible”, which it defines to mean “electronic information and services which comply with modern accessibility standards such as section 508 guidelines, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA and successor versions.”  The agency intends this definition to be more clear, reflect technology advances, and align with the requirements of Section 504, and recommends entities consult the latest section 508 guidelines or WCAG 2.0 AA.

While both rules make reference to the Section 508 standards for accessible websites which has been the standard for federal agency sites for many years, all indicators point to WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard to use when working to improve the accessibility of a website.  The federal government has issued a proposed rule to replace the existing Section 508 standards with WCAG 2.0 AA.  Most experts we deal with consider the Section 508 standards outdated.  WCAG 2.0 AA was developed by a private consortium of experts called the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), and is the website access “standard” in all U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) settlement agreements. It is also the legal standard for all airline websites covered by the Air Carrier Access Act.  Moreover, DOJ has indicated in its Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for state and local government websites that WCAG 2.0 AA should be the legal standard for such websites.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In yet another effort to limit predatory ADA lawsuits, California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law – effective immediately – legislation that will provide small business owners with some potential relief.

Another year, another attempt in California to reform disability access laws – which presently offer plaintiffs a $4,000 per violation bounty for suing businesses.  But this one might actually make a difference – for small businesses at least. The bill is significant as a demonstration of yet another effort at reform that will still likely have little effect on the big picture.  As the bill’s author has noted, it is a “watered down solution to this lawsuit abuse dilemma.”

On Tuesday, May 10th, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 269.  The bill became effective immediately.

Most significantly, the legislation creates a third category of businesses exempt from full minimum statutory damages — businesses that have employed 50 or fewer employees on average over the past three years, with a facility that has been inspected by a CASp inspector before the filing of a lawsuit or receipt of a demand letter (and the business was not otherwise on notice of the alleged violations), and the business corrected, within 120 days of the CASp inspection, all construction-related violations noted by the CASp inspector that are the basis for the lawsuit or demand letter.  This third category is added to two other categories of businesses which are eligible for reduced statutory damages by virtue of 2012 reform legislation — the last earnest effort of reform that made it into law, which we wrote about here.

There are quite a few hoops for a small business to jump through to qualify for this new exemption, which is why we doubt it will make much of a difference.

SB 269 also allows an exemption from statutory damages for small businesses (25 or fewer employees and less than $3.5 million in gross receipts annually over the past three years), and only provides protection from enumerated technical violations (things like parking lot paint fading or signage) if the small business can manage to fix them within 15 days of notice of the alleged violations — a really short time.  Often it can take more than 15 days to get a contractor out to re-paint parking lot striping, and much longer than that to order and install proper, compliant signage.

A plaintiff can still recover damages if he shows that he did in fact experience difficulty, discomfort, or embarrassment on the particular occasion as a result of one or more of the technical violations.  This means that the plaintiff could just try to open the door and find a violation inside the facility, or find a violation that doesn’t fall into one of the “technical violations” specified in Civil Code section 55.56(e).

Last year’s reform effort, AB 1521, added Section 425.55 to the Code of Civil Procedure.  That section imposes procedural and substantive conditions (disclosure of number of previous lawsuits filed, the reason the plaintiff was in the geographic location of the alleged violation, and why he/she visited the site) before a “high-frequency litigant” can file a lawsuit in California state courts.  A “high frequency litigant” is a “plaintiff who has filed 10 or more complaints alleging a construction-related accessibility violation within the 12-month period immediately preceding the filing of the current complaint alleging a construction-related accessibility violation or an attorney who has represented as attorney of record 10 or more high-frequency litigant plaintiffs in actions that were resolved within the 12-month period immediately preceding the filing of the current complaint alleging a construction-related accessibility violation.”

AB 1521 also requires, in Government Code section 70616.5, a high-frequency litigant to pay at the time of filing a construction-related accessibility lawsuit in California state court, a $1,000 filing fee in addition to the court’s initial filing fee.  Finally, AB 1521 established state court procedures to evaluate cases that involve a high-frequency litigant as well as procedures for requesting a joint inspection of the premises as part of participating in an early evaluation conference.

We’re often asked what practical effect these California reform bills have on the big picture of ADA lawsuit abuse.  The response, unfortunately, is usually: very little because the statutory damages exceptions apply mostly to small businesses, and the procedural protections only apply to lawsuits filed in state courts, while many ADA cases are filed in federal courts.  On May 4, 2016, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California issued an Order confirming that defendants sued in federal court are not entitled to a stay of proceedings and an early evaluation conference under California’s disability accessibility laws.

Despite efforts to reign in overzealous plaintiff’s attorneys and bring back the spirit of the ADA and California accessibility laws, the wheels of justice turn slowly.  These bills show the legislature’s attempts to chip away at this issue bit by bit.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey,  Minh N. Vu.

This morning, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, DOJ participated by issuing its Spring 2016 unified agenda, including upcoming regulatory actions on web accessibility and movie captioning.

Click on the links to the right in the bullets below for the lowdown on each rule, but here are a few highlights:

AA65: State and Local Government web accessibility regulations.  No need to follow this like a bloodhound; the DOJ just issued a Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which we reported here.  Watch this space for an imminent detailed blog on the SANPRM – so you don’t have to slog through the 30 pages of small print.  The comment period closes in August 2016, and the NPRM is due out in July 2017, with comment period on the NPRM to end in September 2017.

AA60: Regulation to reflect statutory amendments to the definition of disability applicable to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. NPRM due in July 2016, with final action expected by years’ end.

AA59:  Regulations to clarify terms within the definition of disability and to establish standards that must be applied to determine if a person has a covered disability under Title II and Title III, due to statutory changes made in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Final rule due May 2016 (like, now!)

AA63:  Movie Captioning and Audio Description regulations.  The final rule is due July 2016; read our take on these regs here.

  • DOJ/CRT – Prerule Stage – Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability: Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Governments: 1190-AA65
  • DOJ/CRT – Proposed Rule Stage – Implementation of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973): 1190-AA60
  • DOJ/CRT – Final Rule Stage – Implementation of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (Title II and Title III of the ADA): 1190-AA59
  • DOJ/CRT – Final Rule Stage – Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Movie Captioning and Audio Description: 1190-AA63

So it’s possible we could have several interesting things happen in 2016.  Do we believe that everything will come out when DOJ says it will?  No.  No, we do not, if history is any indication.  Will we (Susan Ryan) check these diligently every day like our old friend Sisyphus with his boulder?  Yes.  Yes, she will.

Oh, and in case you remember that old chestnut AA61, the Title III almost-proposed web regulations (which we’ve reported on ad nauseum), that apparently does not merit an entry in the Unified Agenda.  The focus is all Title II (AA65) now.  There’s a mention of the Title III almost-proposed regulations in the AA65 write-up, but no indication of any status.

Stay tuned… and if you’re not taking advantage of any of the great information provided by various entities as part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day – all about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) accessibility and users with different disabilities, check it out: http://www.globalaccessibilityawarenessday.org/!

Seyfarth Synopsis: NYC recently passed a law requiring that its government agency websites meet accessibility standards.  Other state and local governments may follow NYC’s lead and enact accessibility standards for government agencies, contractors and even public accommodations in the absence of regulations from DOJ.

On March 14, New York City became the first major municipality in the United States to adopt legislation mandating accessibility standards for all of its government agency websites.  Serving a population of over 8 million, the New York City government includes more than 120 agencies staffed by approximately 325,000 employees.  This legislation will have an impact on City agencies, and access for persons with disabilities to those institutions.  It may also have an impact on future website regulations impacting businesses across the country.

Recent NYC Legislation

The website legislation (Intro. 683-A) was among three disability access bills that Mayor Bill De Blasio signed into law on the same day.  In addition to mandating website protocols, the legislation requires that each City agency designate a “disability service facilitator,” and publicize, among other things, the availability of wheelchair access, communication access real-time translation, sign language interpretation, assistive listening systems (e.g. loop technology), and any other accommodations to be made available for all public events.  This sweeping legislative mandate also expressly requires that City government websites display New York State’s controversial “Accessible Icon” (rather than the International Symbol of Access), to designate venues for government meetings or other events that are accessible to wheelchair users.

NYC Must Adopt an Accessible Website Protocol within 6 Months 

The new City law underscores that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA (“WCAG 2.0 AA”) is increasingly becoming the de facto standard for website accessibility, despite the continued lack of any regulations from the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) setting a legally-required standard for state and local governments under Title II of the ADA, or for public accommodations (i.e. private businesses) under Title III.

Under the new law, the City must establish a website protocol within 6 months that incorporates: (1) Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 508”); (2) WCAG 2.0 AA; or (3) any “successor” standards.  The Section 508 standard applies to the federal government websites and  consists of a list of 16 requirements that are less rigorous than WCAG 2.0 AA.  But last year the Access Board proposed a rule that would, among other things, adopt WCAG 2.0 AA as the new website standard under Section 508.  Thus, if the City incorporates Section 508 in its website protocol, its agency websites may be subject to WCAG 2.0 Level AA once the final Section 508 regulations are issued.

There are several exceptions to the new accessibility mandate.  The City may adopt protocols that differ from Section 508, WCAG 2.0 AA, or any successor standard, but if it does, it must first consult with experts in website design, conduct a public hearing, and ensure that any differences will still provide effective communication for persons with disabilities.  In addition, the law does not require the “fundamental alteration” of any service, program, or activity, and shall not impose an “undue financial or administrative burden.”

Potential Impact on Businesses

The adoption of accessibility standards for government websites in the most populous city in the United States is significant.  Other municipalities may follow New York City’s lead and pass their own legislation or regulations for accessible features in government websites.  This may result in differing local standards across jurisdictions, which would undermine DOJ’s efforts to implement a comprehensive, national set of rules for website accessibility under Title II of the ADA.

State and local legislators may decide to extend the WCAG 2.0 AA’s reach to the websites of private businesses doing business with state or local governments, or the public, after they are done dealing with their agency websites.  This could follow the model of Ontario, Canada, where the provincial government enacted regulations requiring businesses with 50 or more employees in Ontario to ensure that their websites meet WCAG 2.0 Level A guidelines (and to meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA by 2021).  Based on the progressive legislative and regulatory agenda of the current mayoral administration, we would not be surprised if New York City passed a future law requiring that government contractors or businesses with a presence in the City provide accessible websites.

The bottom line is that if DOJ continues to delay in issuing proposed rules for website accessibility, states and local governments may step into that void and enact rules of their own for government entities, contractors, and even public accommodations.  This could subject businesses to potentially inconsistent rules across jurisdictions.  It is yet another reason why DOJ guidance on this topic is needed now more than ever.

Edited by Minh Vu and Kristina Launey.