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:  A federal judge in the Central District of California has allowed a blind plaintiff to continue his lawsuit about the accessibility of a public accommodation’s website under Title III of the ADA, despite the diametrically opposite views of his Central District colleague.

Within a week after a Florida federal judge handed down a trial verdict finding that Winn Dixie had violated Title III of the ADA by having a website that could not be used by the blind plaintiff, U.S. District Judge John Walter of the Central District of California ruled that blind plaintiff Sean Gorecki could continue his lawsuit against retailer Hobby Lobby about the accessibility of its website.  The retailer had asked the court to dismiss the case on various grounds, all of which were rejected by the judge.  The case will now move forward.

This decision is significant for several reasons:

  • The decision illustrates that two judges in the same United States District Court can have diametrically opposite views on the very same issue. In March of this year, U.S. District Judge James Otero dismissed a lawsuit brought by a blind plaintiff against Domino’s Pizza about its allegedly inaccessible website.  Judge Otero found that Domino’s had met its obligations under the law by providing telephonic access via a customer service hotline, and that requiring Domino’s to have an accessible website at this time would violate its constitutional right to due process.  On the due process point, Judge Otero noted that neither the law nor the regulations require websites to be accessible, and that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had failed to issue regulations on this topic after seven years.  As further evidence that covered entities have not been given fair notice of their obligations under the ADA, he cited the DOJ’s official statements from the beginning of the website rulemaking process that (1) it was considering what legal standard of accessibility to adopt, and (2) telephonic access could be a lawful alternative to having an accessible website.  Based on these due process concerns, Judge Otero invoked the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine which “allows courts to stay proceedings or dismiss a complaint without prejudice pending the resolution of an issue within the special competence of an administrative agency.”
  • In stark contrast, U.S. District Judge John Walter in the Hobby Lobby case rejected the due process argument and held that the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine did not apply. With regard to the due process argument, Judge Walter stated that “[f]or over 20 years, the DOJ has consistently maintained that the ADA applies to private websites that meet the definition of a public accommodation” and that “Hobby Lobby had more than sufficient notice in 2010 to determine that its website must comply with the ADA.”  Judge Walter also held that the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine did not apply because it only applies to cases whose resolution require the “highly specialized expertise” of a federal agency.  Judge Walter found that this case is a “relatively straightforward claim that Hobby Lobby failed to provide disabled individuals full and equal enjoyment of goods and services offered by its physical stores by not maintaining a fully accessible website.”
  • Judge Walter reserved judgment on what Hobby Lobby would have to do to make its website accessible until after a decision on the merits. The Court specifically noted that the plaintiff was not asking for conformance with a specific technical rule such as the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.

Because Judge Walter’s decision was on a motion to dismiss and not a final judgment, Hobby Lobby does not have the right to appeal the decision at this time.  We predict that the case will settle before the court reaches the merits of the case.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Utah businesses are experiencing an unprecedented number of ADA Title III lawsuits.

Utah used to be a good place for public accommodations that did not want to be sued for ADA Title III violations.  In 2013, 2014, and 2015 combined, plaintiffs only filed a total of eight such lawsuits in federal court (1, 6, and 1, respectively).  In 2016, the number surged to 124, making Utah the seventh most busy federal venue for such filings for that year.  In just the first five months of 2017, plaintiffs have filed 125 lawsuits in the Utah federal courts, the highest number since we started tracking them in 2013.

Federal ADA Title III Lawsuits Filed in Utah Federal Courts: 2013-2017: 2013 (1), 2014 (6), 2015 (1), 2016 (124), Jan.-May 2017 (125)

Nine plaintiffs are responsible for the 2017 numbers so far, with one who has filed 57 such suits.  Another six plaintiffs have each filed between 9 and 15 cases, and two have only filed one case each.  These plaintiffs have been represented by one of six law firms, one of which was counsel in 105 of the 124 cases filed in 2016.  Most of these cases appear to concern alleged architectural barriers in public accommodations facilities.

Utah businesses are not likely to experience the level of disability access litigation as their counterparts in California, Florida, or New York, but we are not ruling out that possibility.

The increase of ADA Title III lawsuits in federal court shows no signs of stopping.  From January 1 through April 30, 2017, 2629 lawsuits were filed — 412 more than during the same period in 2016.  That’s a whopping 18 percent increase.  As we previously reported, the total number of lawsuits filed in federal court in 2016 was 6,601 and represented a 37% increase from 2015.

Federal ADA Title III Lawsuits: January 1-April 30, 2017: Jan.-April 2016 (2217); Jan.-April 2017 (2629)
Federal ADA Title III Lawsuits: January-April 2017: Jan.-April 2016 (2217); Jan.-April 2017 (2629)

Based on our own practice, website and mobile app accessibility lawsuits have become more common, with lawsuits being brought in new jurisdictions.  Our research team is crunching the website lawsuit numbers and we hope to get them to you soon.