Seyfarth Synopsis:  Plaintiffs secure a second judgment in a federal website accessibility lawsuit while most of the others successfully fended off motions to dismiss. 

2018 has been a bad year for most businesses that have chosen to fight website accessibility cases filed under Title III of the ADA.  Plaintiffs filing in federal court secured their second judgment on the merits in a website accessibility lawsuit, bringing the federal court judgment score to 2-0 in their favor.  Additionally, in twenty-one cases where defendants filed early motions to dismiss, judges have allowed eleven to move forward.  While a forty percent dismissal rate doesn’t seem bad, most of the cases that were dismissed had a common set of unique facts that most defendants don’t have. Below is a rundown of the most noteworthy 2018 cases and trends.

At the end of August, Southern District of Florida Judge Marcia Cooke issued the second judgment on the merits in a federal court website accessibility lawsuit and it was in favor of the plaintiff.  (The first judgment was in the Winn Dixie case after a bench trial.)  Judge Cooke held on summary judgment that retailer GNC’s website violated the ADA because the evidence in the record “suggests that the Website is inaccessible.”  The court cited to the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony and automated test results to reach this conclusion, and excluded the testimony of the GNC’s expert based on his lack of qualifications.  Judge Cooke refused to order a remedy at the summary judgment phase, but said that she found “highly persuasive the number of cases adopting WCAG 2.0 Success Level AA as the appropriate standard to measure accessibility.”

In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a prior private settlement of a website accessibility lawsuit in which the defendant had made a commitment to make its website more accessible did not moot a subsequent lawsuit brought by another plaintiff against the same defendant.  The Court reasoned that the website remediation work was not yet complete, and the second plaintiff had sought other relief that was not addressed by the settlement.  The Court also noted that if the defendant failed to comply with its settlement obligations, the second plaintiff would have no recourse since it was not a party to the prior settlement agreement.

In July, the Eleventh Circuit became the second federal appellate court to explicitly address whether the ADA covers websites.  The Court found that the plaintiff had stated an ADA claim against the defendant because the alleged barriers on its website prevented him from accessing the goods and services of its stores.  Specifically, the blind plaintiff alleged that he could not access the store locator function or purchase a gift card online using his screen reader software.  This case does have a silver-lining for defendants with web-only businesses though:  The Eleventh Circuit’s analysis followed prior precedent holding that a public accommodation is a physical place, and plaintiffs seeking to bring ADA claims about inaccessible websites must show that a barrier on the website prevented them from enjoying the goods and services of that physical place.  This puts the Eleventh Circuit mostly in line with the Ninth Circuit which has held that websites with no nexus to a physical place are not covered by the ADA, and is the only other federal appellate court to have ruled on the issue.

In eleven other decisions, district court judges in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and Michigan allowed website accessibility cases to move forward into discovery, rejecting defendants’ requests for early dismissal.  In most of these cases, the judges rejected the arguments that requiring businesses to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities in the absence of legal standards or regulations is a denial of due process, and that courts should not address website accessibility claims until the Department of Justice issues regulations.

In August, Judge Schwab of the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a pointed decision against a retailer because he found the aggressive tactics of its defense lawyer to constitute bad faith.  Specifically, after receiving a demand letter from the plaintiffs who later filed in Pennsylvania, the retailer filed a pre-emptive lawsuit in Utah against the plaintiffs seeking declaratory relief concerning their website-related obligations under the ADA, and asserting state law claims of negligent representation, fraud, fraudulent non-disclosure, and civil conspiracy.  When the plaintiffs then filed their lawsuit in Pennsylvania, the retailer filed a motion to dismiss based on, among other things, the “first filed” rule which gives the court in the later filed action discretion to dismiss the latter case to avoid duplicative litigation and promote judicial comity.  Judge Schwab said he did not have to apply the “first filed” rule where there was evidence of bad faith by defense counsel, and also said he would consider sanctions if defense counsel tried this forum-shopping tactic again in future cases.  Judge Schwab further held that the ADA covers websites and allowed the case to move forward in Pennsylvania.  Meanwhile, the lawsuit in Utah is still pending after the defense attorney in question withdrew from the case and the retailer filed a First Amended Complaint.

The positive decisions for defendants this year have come from judges in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio.   Judges in Virginia and Ohio dismissed six lawsuits against credit unions about their allegedly inaccessible websites because the plaintiff was not eligible to join the defendant credit unions.  These are fairly unique facts that most defendants defending website accessibility suits will not have, however.

There were four pro-defendant rulings in Florida, but one has been reopened because of the Eleventh Circuit’s holding that a prior settlement does not moot a subsequent lawsuit, discussed supra.  In the second Florida case, Judge Gayles of the Southern District of Florida dismissed an ADA lawsuit because the plaintiff had not alleged that barriers on the website impeded his access to a physical place of public accommodation.   In the third case, Judge Presnell of the Middle District of Florida dismissed a case  because the plaintiff had not alleged that he really intended to return to the location and lacked standing.  In the fourth case, Judge Presnell said that “alleging the mere existence of some connection or link between the website and the physical location is not sufficient.”  Judge Presnell distinguished “an inability to use a website to gain information about a physical location” versus “an ability to use a website that impedes access to enjoy a physical location” and said the former is not sufficient to state a claim.  The judge dismissed the case because the plaintiff’s allegations were about obtaining information, not impeding access.

The takeaway from these recent decisions is that — while the defense strategy for every website accessibility lawsuit must be evaluated on its own set of facts — most courts are not willing to dismiss these cases early except in limited circumstances.  Thus, defendants looking to fight must be prepared to go through discovery and at least summary judgment, if not trial.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Not long after a similar Congressional appeal, Senators sent a letter to Attorney General Sessions urging action to stem the tide of website accessibility lawsuits plaguing businesses.

On Wednesday, September 12, 2018, Senator Chuck Grassley (Iowa) announced that he and Senator Mike Rounds (South Dakota) sent a letter to United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeking clarification on whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to websites. Senators Joni Ernst (Iowa), Thom Tillis (North Carolina), Mike Crapo (Idaho), and John Cornyn (Texas) also joined in the request.

The letter urges the Department of Justice to help resolve uncertainty regarding website accessibility obligations under the ADA because “for the ADA to be effective, it must be clear so that law abiding Americans can faithfully follow the law. Right now it is not clear whether the ADA applies to websites. This leaves businesses and property owners unsure of what standards, if any, govern their online services.”

The letter noted that the DOJ has issued no guidance or regulations to provide clarity, and that conflicting court decisions have created even more confusion, which plaintiffs’ attorneys are “exploiting” for “personal gain”, “sending threatening demand letters and filing hundreds of lawsuits against small and medium-sized businesses across the country – from banks and credit unions to retailers and restaurants”.

The letter references our data, published in our July 17, 2018 blog, that more ADA website accessibility lawsuits were filed in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017.  It also cites Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts data that show filings of certain ADA cases increasing 521 percent from 2005 to 2017. These statistics show, the Senators write, that this litigious trend will only continue to grow unless the DOJ takes action.

The Senators recognize that businesses would rather spend money serving their disabled customers than “paying money to avoid a shakedown by trial lawyers who do not have the interests of the disabled at heart.”

Noting the DOJ’s December 2017 withdrawal of the website accessibility rulemaking process, in which the DOJ said it was evaluating the need for regulations, the Senators emphasize that lack of clarity only benefits plaintiffs’ lawyers while “clarity in the law will encourage private investment in technology and other measures that will improve conditions for the disabled.”

The Senators close by urging the DOJ to promptly take actions, including filing statements of interest in currently pending litigation, to resolve the current uncertainty, and to brief the Senators’ staff on the DOJ’s intentions on this issue by September 28, 2018.

This letter comes not long after a bi-partisan assembly of 103 Members of Congress wrote a similar letter to the Attorney General in June.  It remains unclear whether this letter will spurn any prompt action from the DOJ.  Given the current Administration’s aversion to increased regulation, it is unlikely that the DOJ will re-start its website accessibility rulemaking any time soon.  And, though the Senators urge the DOJ to take any actions in its power—including filing statements of interest—the DOJ has thus far been unwilling to do so.  Unlike the Obama Administration which weighed in in favor of plaintiffs on the private lawsuits brought against Winn-Dixie, M.I.T. and Harvard University, the Trump Administration declined to file a brief in a website accessibility case last year despite the district court’s invitation. Thus, we continue to wait and see how Attorney General Sessions and the DOJ react to the Senate letter.  In the meantime, we, like the Senators, expect website accessibility lawsuits will continue to be filed at a record pace throughout the United States.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Is it a service animal or an emotional support animal?  Do I have to allow both?  How to tell one from the other, and the rules that apply.

We get a lot of questions about service and emotional support animals.  It’s obvious that there is a lot of confusion out there.  Here is how to tell one from the other, and the rules that apply to both.

Public Accommodations.  Under Title III of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and virtually all state laws, a service animal is an animal that has been trained to perform work or tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.  Emotional support animals—also called therapy or comfort animals—have not been trained to perform work or tasks.  Instead, they provide a benefit just by being present.  Public accommodations (e.g. restaurants, theatres, stores, health care facilities), are allowed to ask only two questions to determine if an animal is a service animal:  (1) Do you need the animal because of a disability? and (2) What work or tasks has this animal been trained to perform?  The second question is the key:  If the person is unable to identify the work or tasks that the animal has been trained to perform, then the animal is not a service animal.

Under the ADA, only a dog or miniature horse (no, we are not joking) can serve as service animals.  The ADA requires public accommodations to allow service animals to accompany their owners anywhere the owners can go, although the Department of Justice made clear a few years ago that they can be prohibited from swimming pools (in the water) as well as shopping carts.  The ADA provides no protection for emotional support animals in public accommodations.  The Department of Justice has a very helpful FAQ about service animals, and the Washington Post recently published a story that is also useful.

When developing policies, public accommodations must comply with both federal and state law, and some states provide greater protections.  For example, in some states, any type of animal (not limited to dogs and miniature horses) can be a service animal provided it has been trained to perform work or tasks.  Some states may provide protection for emotional support animals as well.  Virtually all states protect service animals in training, which are not addressed by the ADA.  Thus, public accommodations must tailor their policies to account for state requirements, or adopt a policy that will comport with the broadest of all state laws nationwide.

Housing.  The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) applies to residential facilities and provides protection for emotional support animals in addition to service animals.  Thus, property managers, condo associations, co-op boards, and homeowners associations need to keep this in mind when dealing with requests from homeowners and tenants relating to these types of animals.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent guidance on this topic is here.

Airplanes.  The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), not the ADA, governs accommodations for people with disabilities on airplanes.  The Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for enforcing the ACAA rules.  Historically, the rules have required accommodations for emotional support animals, but recent abuses of the rules by passengers seeking to bring all manner of animals such as peacocks and pigs onto planes has caused the DOT to revisit this issue in a pending rulemaking.

Compliance Strategy.  All businesses should have a written policy concerning service and emotional support animals that takes into account federal law, state law, the nature of the business, and the ability of employees to make decisions about whether an animal should be allowed onto the premises.  Having a written policy and training employees on the policy is key to ensuring that they know how to respond when one of these animals shows up on the premises.

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.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The World Wide Web Consortium just published an expanded version of the WCAG to add 17 more requirements to address new technologies and other digital barriers for individuals with disabilities.

On June 5, the private body of web accessibility experts called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published its update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, aptly named the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level 2.1.

The WCAG 2.1 is an extension of the WCAG 2.0 which the W3C issued in 2008. In recent years, WCAG 2.0 AA has become the generally-accepted set of technical requirements for making websites, mobile apps, and other digital content accessible to people with disabilities. WCAG 2.0 AA is the legal standard for the primary websites of airline carriers as well as the websites of federal agencies.

Four years in the making, WCAG 2.1 “fills gaps” in WCAG 2.0 by adding 17 additional success criteria to address additional accessibility barriers. The updates are mainly related to mobile devices (to keep up with significant technological changes since 2008), disabilities that affect vision (such as colorblindness, low vision; and criteria addressing text spacing and non-text color contrast), and disabilities that affect cognitive function (such as attention deficit disorder and age-related cognitive decline; and criteria addressing timeouts and animations from interactions for seizures and physical reactions). The W3C designed 2.1 to apply broadly to different web technologies now and in the future, and to be testable with a combination of automated testing and human evaluation. The W3C provides an informative introduction to WCAG here.

According to the W3C:

“Following these guidelines will make content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including accommodations for blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and combinations of these, and some accommodation for learning disabilities and cognitive limitations; but will not address every user need for people with these disabilities. These guidelines address accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices. Following these guidelines will also often make Web content more usable to users in general.”

The WCAG Level 2.0 AA has been widely considered the de facto standard for website accessibility in the United States, even though the Department of Justice has not adopted it into its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations applicable to public accommodations.  The W3C’s publication of WCAG 2.1 does not change that equation; it merely adds additional elements for companies to address in making their websites accessible. 2.1 builds on 2.0, and will still follow the A, AA, and AAA conformance levels. The few court decisions that have issued an order requiring companies to conform their websites to a standard for accessibility have used WCAG 2.0 AA.  Given the rather incremental changes in 2.1, we expect WCAG 2.1 AA to eventually be the new “de facto” standard, but do not expect courts to require websites that already conform to 2.0 AA to meet all 2.1 AA standards overnight.

Further out on the horizon is the W3C’s Silver initiative, which we hear will reimagine the accessibility guidelines completely.  However, there’s no need to worry about that yet.

On May 21, a California state court in Los Angeles held on summary judgment that the Whisper Lounge restaurant violated California’s Unruh Act by having a website that could not be used by a blind person with a screen reader, and ordered the restaurant to make its website comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level 2.0 AA.  The court also ordered the restaurant to pay $4,000 statutory damages.  This is the second decision by a California state court on the merits of a website accessibility case.  The first decision concerned the Bags n’ Baggage website.  In 2017, a Florida federal judge conducted the first trial in a website accessibility case against Winn Dixie and held that the grocer’s website violated the ADA because it was not accessible to the blind plaintiff, and ordered Winn Dixie to make its website conform to WCAG 2.0 AA.

The court in the Whisper Lounge case rejected – as most courts on similar facts have – the restaurant’s argument that the website is not a place of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The court found that the restaurant’s website “falls within the category of ‘services….privileges, advantages, or accommodations of’ a restaurant, which is a place of public accommodation under the ADA.”

Next, the court noted that the restaurant presented no evidence in opposition to the plaintiff’s showing that the website was inaccessible on February 20, 2017 – the date the plaintiff said she attempted to use the website.  The restaurant only submitted a declaration stating that the declarant was generally able to use the screen reader NVDA on the website from 2014 through 2017, without addressing the specific barriers the plaintiff said prevented her from using the website.

The restaurant also argued that it provided access to the information on its website by having a telephone number and email.  The Court rejected this argument as well, finding that the provision of a phone number and email does not provide “equal enjoyment of the website”, as the ADA requires, but instead imposes a burden on the visually impaired to wait for a response via email or call during business hours rather than have immediate access like sighted customers.  Thus, the court reasoned, the email and telephone number do not provide effective communication “in a timely manner” nor protect the independence of the visually impaired.  The court did not say whether a toll-free number that is staffed 24-hour a day would have yielded a different outcome.

Finally, the Court rejected the restaurant’s argument that the WCAG 2.0 AA is not yet a legal requirement, finding that the Complaint did not seek to hold the restaurant liable for violating the WCAG 2.0 AA.  Rather, the Complaint alleged that the website discriminated against the plaintiff by being inaccessible and sought an injunction to require the restaurant to make its website accessible to the blind.  The Court also rejected the restaurant’s arguments that requiring it to have an accessible website violated due process and the court should wait until the Department of Justice issues regulations addressing website accessibility.  The Court noted that the fact that the restaurant was redesigning its website did not render the case moot because the restaurant did not establish that “subsequent events make it absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

The decision does have a silver lining for the defense bar.  The Court noted that the plaintiff was entitled to only $4,000 in damages under the Unruh Act, which provides for a minimum of $4,000 in statutory damages for each incident of discrimination.  The court held that plaintiff’s repeated visits to the same inaccessible website did not establish separate offenses for purposes of calculating damages.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  A Missouri federal judge orders a theatre to provide, upon request, captioning services for the deaf for all theatrical performances.

A federal judge in Missouri recently ordered a 4500-seat indoor theatre to provide open or closed captioning for all theatrical performances upon request with two weeks’ notice, in a lawsuit brought by deaf patrons and advocacy organizations.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri initially offered no captioning services of any kind for its theatre productions. After the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit, the theater agreed to provide captioning on a handheld device for one prescheduled Broadway-style performance per production (usually on a Saturday matinee), if it receives a request for captioning two weeks before the show. The theatre provided stands for the devices only at designated accessible seats because the fire marshal considered them to be a fire hazard. The plaintiffs maintained that captioning should be available for all shows, and that the theatre should provide stands for the handheld devices at all seats, not just accessible seats. They also sought an injunction requiring the theatre to (a) publicize the availability of captioning; (b) provide a means to request captioning; and (c) provide a method for people to purchase tickets by non-telephonic means, including e-mail.

The judge agreed with the plaintiffs on every issue but one. The judge held that providing captioning for only one show per Broadway-style production denied plaintiffs the equal opportunity to participate in the theatre’s performances because it limited their ability to choose from a number of different performances that were available to non-disabled patrons. The court also found that the theatre had failed to meet its obligation to provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication with the plaintiff. The theatre did not attempt to argue that providing captioning for all performances upon request would be an undue burden or fundamental alteration of its performances. Accordingly, the court ordered the theatre to provide captioning for all theatrical performances upon request with two weeks’ notice. The court also – with no discussion – ordered the theatre to publicize the availability of captioning, provide a means to request captioning, and provide a method of buying tickets through non-telephonic means, including e-mail. The court did not require the theatre to provide stands for the captioning devices at non-accessible seats, due to fire safety concerns.

The decision serves as a reminder that Title III of the ADA requires public accommodations to provide auxiliary aids and services to individuals with disabilities to ensure effective communication with them, unless doing so imposes an undue burden or fundamentally alters the nature of the goods and services provided. Organizers of events that are open to the public should keep this in mind and have a plan for ensuring effective communication for participants and spectators with different types of disabilities, as there have been a number of lawsuits filed in the past several years over the lack of captioning for live events.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs who pursued numerous web accessibility actions under Title III of the ADA are now using website accessibility to test the limits of a different area of law – employment law – California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Over the past few years, we have frequently written about the proliferation of demand letters and lawsuits alleging that a business denied a usually blind or vision-impaired individual access to its goods and services because the business’ website was not accessible, in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state laws. One firm that pursued many web accessibility actions under Title III and California’s Unruh Act (including a success in the Bags N’ Baggage case decided in plaintiff’s favor by a California state court) is now going after employers.  In recent demand letters and lawsuits, they are alleging that employment websites are not accessible to blind job seekers, in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), California’s corollary to Title I of the ADA.

While this blog, and Seyfarth’s Disability Access Team, are focused on disability access issues affecting places of public accommodation that provide goods and services to the general public (not employees, though many of our team members are employment specialists as well), this emerging litigation trend is worthy of our discussion here because it is an extension of the tsunami of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits pursued under Title III, involving the same technological and other issues, as well as the same plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys.  But there is one big difference – the legal standard that applies to employment disability discrimination claims is different from the standard applied to disability discrimination claims brought against public accommodations. Title III is unique from other anti-discrimination statutes in that it requires (with exceptions) businesses take affirmative, proactive measures to ensure individuals with disabilities are afforded equal access to their goods and services. FEHA prohibits discrimination against individuals in employment.  It requires employers, upon notice that an employee or applicant for employment requires a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of his or her job, or to apply for employment, to engage in the interactive process to devise such a reasonable accommodation.  The employer does not need to provide the employee or applicant’s requested accommodation as long as the accommodation provided is effective.

In the cases filed thus far, such as those by Dominic Martin, Roy Rios, and Abelardo Martinez in Orange County and San Diego Superior Courts in California last week, the plaintiffs argue that they are blind residents of California who want to enter the workforce, attempted to apply using the defendant’s online application, but could not because it was inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. They claim the WAVE tool confirmed the website’s inaccessibility (an automated tool like WAVE, while useful, cannot be relied upon to determine whether a website is accessible or not, let alone useable by an individual with a disability).  In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs claim that they twice asked the defendant to remove the barriers and were ignored.  Plaintiffs also claim that removing the barriers would take only a few hours (which anyone who has worked in the website accessibility space knows is rarely if ever possible).  Plaintiffs allege these requests that defendant remove the barriers were requests for reasonable accommodation, though they were sent by the plaintiff’s attorney and not the actual individual seeking employment; thus possibly perceived as litigation demand letters rather than legitimate requests for reasonable accommodation.  The plaintiffs allege that the companies did not respond and that they have a policy to deny disabled individuals equal employment by refusing to remove the barriers on the website.  Each plaintiff alleges only a single legal claim for violation of FEHA, even expressly noting he is not asserting claims for violation of any federal law or regulation.

Will these claims find any success in the courts under the applicable law?  We will be watching.  In the meantime, businesses that have been focusing efforts on consumer-facing websites to mitigate risk under Title III should be aware of this new trend (if you have not already received such a letter).

Edited by: Minh N. Vu.

Seyfarth Shaw Synopsis: Effective December 18, 2017, New York became the latest state to enact a law cracking down on fake service animals.

New York recently joined an increasing number of states that have passed laws aimed at curbing abuse of laws and regulations designed to ensure that individuals with disabilities can be accompanied by their service animals in places of public accommodation and other settings. On December 18, 2017, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that, among other things, makes it unlawful to knowingly apply a false or improper identification tag designating a service, emotional support, or therapy dog. In signing the bill, Gov. Cuomo noted an increasingly important role therapy dogs play in supporting individuals with diseases such as anxiety and PTSD, and also their role in assisting the ill and elderly. Authority to enforce the new law is vested with each municipality’s dog control officer. Violators will face a fine of up to $100, up to 15 days of jail time, or both.

Service animal registrations, vests, and any other means which identify service animals do not have any legal significance, according to the DOJ, and may be easily obtained online. And, as we have previously reported, businesses may only ask a handful of permitted questions to assess whether they must admit a purported service animal. Businesses should be aware of and train their employees to comply with the ADA’s, and any applicable state and local laws’, service animal requirements. Although it may be tempting to undertake more aggressive measures to ferret out cases of service animal fraud, new laws in places like New York do not relieve businesses of their federal obligations to adhere to a protocol for addressing service animal issues. Under DOJ guidance, businesses cannot, for example, ask about the nature of a person’s disability who is accompanied by a purported service animal, or ask for a demonstration of what tasks the animal performs. Therefore, businesses should nonetheless remain vigilant in complying with their obligations to ensure access for those individuals with a genuine need for these animals.

Other states such as Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia have similar laws or regulations prohibiting the misrepresentation of service animals. This trend has recently made national news. These state laws will hopefully discourage those who seek to take advantage of disability laws for an improper purpose, and empower authorities in dealing appropriately with cases of abuse.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  2017 saw an unprecedented number of website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal and state courts, and few courts willing to grant early motions to dismiss.

Plaintiffs were very busy in 2017 filing ADA Title III lawsuits alleging that public accommodations’ websites are not accessible to individuals with disabilities. Here is our brief recap of the 2017 website accessibility lawsuit numbers, major developments, and our thoughts for 2018.

  • In 2017, plaintiffs filed at least 814 federal lawsuits about allegedly inaccessible websites, including a number of putative class actions. We arrived at this number by searching for lawsuits with certain key terms and then manually reviewing the results to remove any cases that did not concern an allegedly inaccessible website.  Our numbers are conservative, as it is very likely that not every website accessibility lawsuit’s description – upon which we based our search – contained our search terms. This caveat applies to all of the data set forth below.
  • Of the 814 federal cases, New York and Florida led the way with more than 335 and 325 cases, respectively. Surprisingly, California only had nine new website accessibility lawsuits in 2017, most likely because plaintiffs filed in state court.  Federal courts in Arizona (6), Georgia (9), Illinois (10), Massachusetts (15), New Hampshire (2), Michigan (1), New Jersey (4), Ohio (8), Pennsylvania (58), Puerto Rico (1), Texas (7), and Virginia (24) also had their share of website accessibility lawsuits.
  • In California state courts, plaintiffs filed at least 115 website accessibility lawsuits in 2017 under the state’s non-discrimination laws. We compiled this data based on searches we performed for lawsuits by four blind plaintiffs represented by two California law firms.
  • In New York state courts, plaintiffs filed at least six website accessibility lawsuits in 2017. All were putative class actions.
  • Defendants in at least 13 federal website accessibility cases filed motions to dismiss or for summary judgment where there were no unusual circumstances like a prior court order or settlement agreement that obligated the defendant to make its website accessible. The courts denied all but two of those motions and let the cases proceed to discovery.
    • In one case where the defendant, Bang & Olfusen, won its motion to dismiss, the court noted that the plaintiff had failed to plead a nexus between the physical place of public accommodation and the website in question. In the other case, the court dismissed the claims made against Domino’s because requiring the defendant to comply with a set of web accessibility guidelines that are not yet law would violate due process principles.  The Domino’s decision is on appeal and will be reviewed by the Ninth Circuit in 2018.  Our post about these cases is here.
    • In the 11 cases where the federal judges refused to dismiss website accessibility claims and allowed the cases proceed to discovery, the defendants had unsuccessfully argued that the principles or due process and the doctrine of primary jurisdiction should be the basis for dismissal. One of our posts discussing some of these decisions is here.
    • In three decisions, the courts were open to the concept that providing telephonic access to the goods and services offered at the public accommodation may satisfy the ADA, but they refused to dismiss the cases at the outset on this basis.
  • The first trial in a website accessibility lawsuit took place in 2017. Florida U.S. District Judge Scola presided over this bench trial and concluded that grocer Winn Dixie had violated Title III of the ADA by having an inaccessible website.  Judge Scola also found that the $250,000 cost to remediate Winn Dixie’s website was not an “undue burden” and ordered Winn Dixie to make its website conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA (WCAG 2.0 AA).
  • Three defendants were able to dismiss website access lawsuits early because they had already entered into consent decree or settlement agreements with previous plaintiffs which required them to make their websites conform to the WCAG 2.0 within a specified amount of time. That said, not all courts agree that a prior settlement — as opposed to a binding judgment or court order — can be the basis for a dismissal.
  • The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) rulemaking to create new website accessibility regulations is now officially dead, as we recently blogged. The lack of clear rules will lead to more litigation and inconsistent judicially-made law.  In fact, it appears that the DOJ will not be issuing any new regulations under Title III of the ADA about any subject, according to the agency’s December 26 announcement in the Federal Register repealing all pending ADA Title III rulemakings.

What’s in store for 2018? If the Ninth Circuit upholds the Domino’s district court’s dismissal on due process grounds, the number of California website accessibility lawsuits in federal court may go down dramatically.  Even if that occurs, we see no end to the website accessibility lawsuit surge elsewhere and expect that new plaintiffs’ firms will continue to enter the scene.  While the current administration’s DOJ is not likely to push the website accessibility agenda, its inaction will not stop the lawsuits.  Only an amendment to the ADA can do that, which we believe is highly unlikely.  Thus, the best risk mitigation effort for covered entities is still to make their websites accessible as soon as possible, with the assistance of ADA Title III legal counsel experienced in website accessibility issues and reputable digital accessibility consultants.

Edited by Kristina Launey