Seyfarth Synopsis: DOJ’s response to members of Congress about the explosion in website accessibility lawsuits contains some helpful guidance for public accommodations fighting these claims.

As we reported in June, 103 members of the House of Representatives from both parties asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “state publicly that private legal action under the ADA with respect to websites is unfair and violates basic due process principles in the absence of clear statutory authority and issuance by the department of a final rule establishing website accessibility standards.” The letter urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to “provide guidance and clarity with regard to website accessibility under the … ADA.”

DOJ’s September 25 response did not do what the members asked, but it did provide some helpful guidance and invited Congress to take legislative action to address the exploding website accessibility litigation landscape. DOJ first said it was “evaluating whether promulgating specific web accessibility standards through regulations is necessary and appropriate to ensure compliance with the ADA.” (This is helpful – to at least know this issue has not fallen totally off DOJ’s radar.) It continued:

The Department first articulated its interpretation that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites over 20 years ago. This interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.

Additionally, the Department has consistently taken the position that the absence of a specific regulation does not serve as a basis for noncompliance with a statute’s requirements.

These statements are not surprising, as DOJ (granted, under the previous Administration) has made them on other occasions.  But here’s the part of the letter that is helpful for businesses:

Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.

(emphasis added). The fact that public accommodations have “flexibility” in how to comply with the ADA’s effective communication requirement has been lost in the past eight years, even though DOJ made this point in its 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for websites.  In that document, DOJ stated that a 24/7 staffed telephone line could provide a compliant alternative to an accessible website.  The few courts to have considered this argument in the context of an early motion to dismiss have recognized its legitimacy, but have allowed cases to move forward into discovery on this and other issues.  There have been no decisions on the merits addressing the viability of having a 24/7 telephone option in lieu of an accessible website.

The statement that “noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA” is new and significant.  It is a recognition that a website may be accessible and usable by the blind without being fully compliant with the privately developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 or 2.1.  The statement confirms what some courts have said so far:  That the operative legal question in a website accessibility lawsuit is not whether the website conforms with WCAG, but whether persons with disabilities are able to access to a public accommodation’s goods, services, and benefits through the website, or some alternative fashion.

In response to the members’ concern about the proliferation of website litigation lawsuits, DOJ said:  “Given Congress’ ability to provide greater clarity through the legislative process, we look forward to working with you to continue these efforts.”  DOJ is essentially putting the ball back in the Congressional court, where little is likely to happen.

Edited by Kristina M. 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.