ADA Title III Lawsuits

Seyfarth Synopsis: If ADA Title III federal lawsuit numbers continue to be filed at the current pace, 2018’s total will exceed 2017 by 30%, fueled largely by website accessibility lawsuit continued growth.

We have completed our mid-year analysis of the ADA Title III lawsuit numbers and the results are striking.

ADA Title III Lawsuits (All Types)Plaintiffs filed 4965 federal ADA Title III lawsuits in just the first six months of 2018, as compared to 7,663 for all of 2017.  If the filings continue at the same rate, there will be close to 10,000 ADA Title III lawsuits for all of 2018 – a 30% increase over 2017.

[Graph: ADA Title III Lawsuits in Federal Court: 2013-2018: 2013: 2722; 2014: 4436, 63% increase over 2013; 2015: 4789, 8% increase over 2014; 2016: 6601, 37% increase over 2015; 2017: 7663, 16% increase over 2016; 2018: 4965 Federal ADA Title III lawsuits filed through June 2018, 30% Projected Increase over 2017 *Number of projected lawsuits based on current filing rate.]

In addition, for the first six months of 2018, New York (1026 lawsuits) has overtaken Florida (882 lawsuits) for the honor of having the second highest number of ADA Title III lawsuits, with California (2155 lawsuits) retaining its number one position as the most busy jurisdiction for ADA Title III filings.

[Graph: Top 10 States for ADA Title III Federal Lawsuits January – June 2018: CA 2155, NY 1026, FL 882, AZ 87, PA 73, TX 68, GA 65, LA 57, MA 49, NJ 48.]
ADA Title III Lawsuits (Website Accessibility).  Plaintiffs filed more website accessibility lawsuits in federal court for the first six months of 2018 than in all of 2017.  There were at least 1053 of such lawsuits in the first six months of 2018, compared to 814 in all of 2017.  If the filings continue at this rate, there could be more than 2000 website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal court for 2018.

[Graph: Federal Website Accessibility Lawsuits 2017 v. 2018 (First Six Months): 2017: 814; First Half of 2018: 1053.]
The New York federal courts have the most website accessibility lawsuits (630 lawsuits).  The Florida courts lag behind with only 342 lawsuits, and the remaining 10 states have anywhere from 1 to 24 lawsuits apiece.

[Graph: Federal Website Access Lawsuits January – June 2018: At Least 1053 Lawsuits: Ca 5, FL 342, GA 1, IL 6, MA 21, NY 630, OH 4, OR 5, PA 24, TX 7, VA 7, NC 1.]
Website accessibility lawsuits are only partly responsible for the increase in the overall number of ADA Title III lawsuits.  We continue to see many lawsuits about the accessibility of public accommodations physical facilities.  We have recently seen a number of class action lawsuits about hotel shuttle services and online hotel reservations systems.

Our Methodology:  Our overall ADA Title III lawsuit numbers come from the federal court’s docketing system, PACER.  However, because the area of law code that covers ADA Title III cases also includes ADA Title II cases, our research department reviews the complaints to remove those cases from the count.  Our website accessibility lawsuit data comes from searches using key words in the Courthouse New Service database which we then manually analyze.  Both processes result in lists of cases that we know exist, but there may be a few we have missed. In addition, our review did not include any accessibility cases brought in state courts under state law such as California’s Unruh Act that were not removed to federal court.

Website accessibility is an evolving and complicated topic, about which we’ve written many times.  Thanks to delayed regulations and the Department of Justice’s changing positions on the issue, businesses have been caught off guard and plaintiffs’ attorneys are capitalizing on the uncertainty.  We have seen a surge of demand letters and lawsuits against public accommodations alleging inaccessible websites.  Like we do with Title III lawsuits generally, we are tracking web accessibility lawsuits to keep you up to date on the trends.

Since January 1, 2015, 61 lawsuits alleging that a defendant’s inaccessible website violates Title III of the ADA have been filed or removed to federal court. These cases have been filed in five states – Pennsylvania, California, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington – with a small handful of plaintiffs filing virtually all of the lawsuits. The most litigious plaintiffs include Dominick Martin (9 suits, CA), Christian Diaz (8 suits, NY, mostly class actions), Robert Jahoda (6 suits, PA), Edward Davis (5 suits, CA), Jose Del-Orden (3 suits, NY, mostly class actions) and Cheryl Thurston (3 suits, CA). In Pennsylvania, Michelle Sipe and Jill Gross, often filing jointly with Access Now, Inc., Scott Lacey, Jessica Hodges, and Debra Rozear, currently have a combined total of 19 cases.

We are often asked which industry is most targeted by web accessibility suits.  Retailers are the clear winner, as can be seen in the chart below.Chart graphic

 

Also of note are the lawsuits about which we’ve previously written filed against universities and online-only businesses.

Only three of these businesses sued have actively fought the lawsuits thus far. Both the universities and a bank filed motions to dismiss the lawsuits, but the judges rejected those motions and allowed the cases to proceed to discovery.

Most of these lawsuits have settled, though new cases continue to be filed.

Finally, it is interesting to note that one plaintiff filed six cases in California against various retailers alleging that he was unable to apply for a job through the defendants’ allegedly inaccessible online job application processes and that the defendants offered no acceptable alternative accommodations for his vision disability.  This employment-related website accessibility issue falls outside this blog’s ADA Title III focus (and thus is not included in our data), but is still an important cautionary tale for all businesses who use online application processes. In addition, while we do not include Title II lawsuits in our data, we note that one such Title II web accessibility suit was recently filed against the Ohio Secretary of State.

Our methodology: As with our national lawsuit data, the effort to come up with these numbers is a labor-intensive, manual process. Because Pacer does not keep track of the type of ADA Title III lawsuits filed, there is no way to capture this information short of reading every complaint filed. Our analysis revealed that there have been at least 61 Title III website cases filed in or removed to federal court since January 2015. In other words, there is always the possibility of some human error and we hope you’ll forgive us if the numbers are slightly off.

Our research department has crunched the numbers from the federal court docket and the verdict is that the ADA Title III plaintiff’s bar and their clients are still busy filing lawsuits.  Here are the findings:

  • In 2015, 4,789 ADA Title III lawsuits were filed in federal court, as compared to 4,436 in 2014.  That 8% increase is modest compared to the surge we saw, and reported in 2014.  In 2014, the number of ADA Title III lawsuits increased 63% over the 2,722 lawsuits filed nationwide in 2013.

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  • California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Arizona had the most ADA Title III lawsuits —  a total of 3,847 cases.  This accounts for 80% of the lawsuits filed nationwide.
  • Although California and Florida continue to be the most popular venues for ADA Title III lawsuits, the number of cases filed in those states in 2015 decreased by 11% and 14% respectively.
  • Arizona experienced a surge in lawsuits.  Plaintiffs in Arizona filed 25 times more cases in 2015 than they did in 2014, for a total of 207 lawsuits in 2015.  Other states with substantial increases in the number of lawsuits were Georgia (from 20 to 96), Illinois (from 29 to 84), New York (212 to 366).

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  • Federal courts in Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming had no ADA Title III lawsuits.
  • Who are the plaintiffs filing these suits? Our docket review revealed the top filers in 2015 were:
    • Howard Cohan (FL/IL/LA) – 429
    • Martin Vogel (CA) – 198
    • Theresa Brooke (AZ/CA) – 175
    • Patricia/Pat Kennedy (FL) – 173
    • Tal Hilson (FL) – 136
    • Jon Deutsch (TX) – 113
    • Michael Rocca (CA) – 102
    • Shirley Lindsay (CA) – 83

We do wish to add a disclaimer:  Our research involved a painstaking manual process of going through all federal cases that were coded as “ADA-Other” and culling out the ADA Title II cases in which the defendants are state and local governments.  In other words, there is always the possibility of some human error and we hope you’ll forgive us if the numbers are slightly off.  And, we only counted federal filings.  Some plaintiffs — such as those in California, which has ADA Title III-corollary state statutes — may file lawsuits in state court that never make it to federal court, and thus, are not included in our numbers.

We’ve done the review and crunched the numbers:  It appears that the surge of ADA Title III lawsuits we saw from 2013 to 2014 is holding strong, though possibly leveling off.

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You may recall that there was a 60% increase in the number of ADA Title III lawsuits between 2013 and 2014 (2479 vs. 4436).  In the first six months of 2015, 2114 Title III lawsuits were filed.  While we think that the number of lawsuits filed in the second half of 2015 will be slightly greater than the first half, the total will not likely be much different from the 2014 total.  This means that the 2014 surge was probably not an aberration but, more likely, the new normal.  Although we did not analyze the types of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in 2015 (e.g. architectural barriers, operational issues, or digital accessibility), our practice has seen a surge of private litigant claims based on allegedly inaccessible websites.

Where are the lawsuit hotspots?  The favorites remain the same:  California, Florida, and New York.  That said, a few states are seeing more action than before.  For example, Idaho had four lawsuits in the first half of 2015 even though it had none for 2013 and 2014.  Arizona had 19 lawsuits filed during this six month period even though it only had 8 in all of 2014.  Minnesota had 42 lawsuits in the first six months of 2015 as compared to the 14 it had in all of 2014.  Wyoming, Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska continue to be ADA Title III lawsuit-free.

We’ll keep tracking the filings and update our findings for all of 2015 in January 2016.

By Minh N. Vu and Susan Ryan

In August 2014, we reported that the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed against public accommodations rose by nearly 9% in 2013 over 2012. At that time, we predicted that there could be a 40% increase in the number of lawsuits filed in 2014 based on 6 months of data. Now that we have all the data, the actual number is far higher: There was a 63% surge, resulting in a grand total of 4,436 ADA Title III lawsuits filed in 2014.

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How Does This Compare to The Number of ADA Employment Lawsuits?

Just to put this into perspective, for comparison purposes we looked at the number of lawsuits filed under Title I of the ADA which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment. As the below chart shows, those numbers remained very steady in 2012-2014, and numbered well under half the total Title III cases filed in 2014.

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Where Are Most of These Cases Filed?

California continues to lead the country with the highest number of ADA Title III lawsuits (1866), with Florida coming in a close second (1553). New York (212), Pennsylvania (135), and Alabama (117) hold the distant third, fourth, and fifth place slots. These five states also saw the largest percentage increase in the number of lawsuits.

In stark contrast, there was not a single ADA Title III lawsuit filed in 2014 in Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

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What is driving these higher lawsuit numbers, 25 years after the passage of the ADA?

Although we have not studied every complaint to answer this question, we did notice some trends in 2014 in our own practice. In addition to the usual lawsuits alleging physical access barriers at hotels, retailers, and shopping centers, we handled a number of cases brought by plaintiffs alleging a failure to provide accessible pool lifts, mostly in Florida. Some of these cases were clearly frivolous because the hotels did have pool lifts. Plaintiffs represented by one law firm filed more than 60 class action lawsuits in the Western District of Pennsylvania. Many of these alleged that the parking lots of various retailers, restaurants, and banks do not have compliant accessible parking spaces.   We also handled federal class actions alleging that some retailers’ point of sale devices are not accessible to the blind.

Who is filing these lawsuits?

We looked at our top five jurisdictions to see who some of the repeat filers were in 2014 under both ADA Title II (state and local government defendants) and Title III (public accommodations (private sector businesses)). In Florida, a plaintiff named Howard Cohan filed 529 such suits. In California, a plaintiff named Martin Vogel filed 124 suits. In Pennsylvania, a plaintiff named Christopher Mielo brought 21 lawsuits. In New York, a plaintiff named Zoltan Hirsch brought 24 lawsuits. In Alabama, a plaintiff named David Higginbotham filed 16 lawsuits.

A Note About Our Methodology

Our data comes from PACER, the federal court electronic docket system. When filing a new lawsuit, a plaintiff has two ADA codes to choose from: “Americans with Disabilities: Employment” or “Americans with Disabilities: Other.” The “other” category refers to ADA Titles II or III. Our diligent librarian, Susan Ryan, obtained the ADA Title III case numbers by reviewing each of the case names (and where necessary, the complaints) to eliminate all Title II cases. As far as we know, no one else has undertaken this task, so you are hearing it here first on this blog.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey