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:  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

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The number of federal lawsuits alleging inaccessible websites continues to increase, along with the number of law firms filing them.  Businesses remain well-advised to seek advice from counsel experienced in website accessibility to manage risk.

Different year, same news: Website accessibility lawsuits show no signs of slowing down. In fact, with the DOJ’s recent placement of website regulations on the “inactive list”, litigation will likely only continue. As we have written about extensively, most recently here, court orders are issuing more and more from courts across the country, slowly creating a body of jurisprudence around this issue; though the rulings differ vastly by court and even judge.

The number of website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal court since the beginning of 2015 has surged to at least 751 as of August 15, 2017, with at least 432 of those filed in just the first eight and a half months of 2017—well over the 262 lawsuits that were filed in all of 2015 and 2016. We say “at least” because there is no easy way to capture every website accessibility lawsuit filed in federal court. Thus, the actual numbers are likely higher than we can report with certainty. Our numbers also do not include the many cases filed in state courts nor demand letters that resolve without ever turning into lawsuits.

Number of federal website accessibility lawsuits by year from January 2015 to August 15, 2017: 2015 (57), 2016 (262), 2017 (432). There are at least this many lawsuits.

Retailers remain the most popular targets, followed by restaurant and hospitality companies.

Number of federal website lawsuits by industry from January 2015 to August 15, 2017: Academic (7), Entertainment (27), Financial (17), Hospitality (57), Medical (42), Personal Services (18), Restaurant (186), Retail (353), Vehicle Manufacturer (13), Other (22). There are at least this many lawsuits.

Although California continues to have the highest number of federal ADA title III lawsuits generally, Florida (385), New York (170) and Pennsylvania (85) have overtaken California with respect to the number of federal website accessibility lawsuits.

Number of states with the most website lawsuits in federal court as of August 15, 2017: Arizona (7), California (65), Florida (385), Illinois (5), Massachusetts (17), New York (170), Ohio (4), Pennsylvania (85), Texas (4), Washington (5). There are at least this many lawsuits.

These lawsuits are a significant portion of the increase in total ADA Title III lawsuits filed in federal courts this year, which, as of April 2017, was already over 2600 filings in 2017—an 18% increase over the number of federal cases filed in the same time period in 2016.

Edited by Minh N. Vu.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With the recent proliferation of web accessibility demand letters and lawsuits, businesses often ask whether settling a claim with one plaintiff will bar future lawsuits brought by different plaintiffs. One federal judge recently said no.

Plaintiffs Rachel Gniewskowski, R. David New, and Access Now, Inc.—represented by Carlson, Lynch, Kilpela & Sweet—sued retailer Party City in the Western District of Pennsylvania on September 6, 2016, alleging that Party City’s website is not accessible to visually impaired consumers in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  On October 7, 2016 (while the Pennsylvania lawsuit was pending), Party City entered into a confidential settlement agreement with Andres Gomez, who had previously filed a similar lawsuit in Florida.  Both lawsuits contained the same basic set of facts and legal claims, and sought similar relief—modification of the website to make it accessible to, and useable by, individuals with disabilities.

Party City filed a summary judgment motion in the Pennsylvania case, arguing that the Pennsylvania case was barred by the prior settlement under principles of res judicata.  Res judicata applies when three circumstances are present: (1) a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit involving (2) the same parties or their privies, and (3) a subsequent suit based on the same cause of action.  In an order issued on January 27, 2017, the court denied the motion, finding that Party City could not establish the second element.

In its attempt to establish the second element, Party City argued that the Pennsylvania plaintiffs Gniewskowski and New were “adequately represented” in the Florida action by Gomez.  The Court disagreed, finding Gomez did not purport to represent Gniewskowski or New, noting that the “complaint in Gomez’s lawsuit made clear that Gomez brought his lawsuit ‘individually.’” Nor could Party City “point to any ‘procedural protections…in the original action’ that were intended to protect the current plaintiffs’ rights to due process”, such as notice of the prior settlement, or measures the court in the prior litigation took to determine whether the settlement was fair as to absent parties.

The court’s straightforward application of res judicata principles is not surprising, and even less so because there is no indication that Party City had committed to making its website accessible in the confidential settlement agreement—the relief sought in the Pennsylvania case. Public settlement agreements requiring a company to make its website accessible, or a consent decree in which a court orders a company to make its website accessible, are much more likely to deter additional website accessibility lawsuits.  Companies that are under a court order to make their websites accessible have a strong argument that any subsequent ADA Title III suit is moot because the only relief that can be obtained in such a suit—injunctive relief—has already been ordered.  Plaintiffs are also likely to find companies that have made a contractual commitment to making their websites accessible to be less attractive targets because the work may be completed while the second lawsuit is pending, mooting out the claim.  Ultimately, the best deterrence is having a website that is accessible to users with disabilities.  While there is still no legally-prescribed standard for accessibility (nor, with the present Administration’s actions toward regulations does it appear likely one will issue anytime soon), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, 2.0 Levels A and AA are widely used in the industry as the de facto standard.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The number of federal ADA Title III lawsuits continue to surge, fueled by new plaintiffs, new plaintiffs’ lawyers, and website accessibility claims.

Our 2016 lawsuit count is complete, and the results no less remarkable than prior years.  In 2016, 6,601 ADA Title III lawsuits were filed in federal court — 1,812 more than in 2015. This 37 percent increase continues the upward trend in the number of filings, which we’ve been tracking since 2013.  In 2015, there were 8 percent more Title III lawsuits filed than in 2014.

ADA Title III Lawsuits in Federal Court: 2013-2016: 2013 (2722); 2014 (4436, 63% Increase over 2013); 2015 (4789, 8% Increase over 2014); 2016 (6601, 37% Increase over 2015)
ADA Title III Lawsuits in Federal Court: 2013-2016: 2013 (2722); 2014 (4436, 63% Increase over 2013); 2015 (4789, 8% Increase over 2014); 2016 (6601, 37% Increase over 2015)

California and Florida continue to be hotbeds of litigation, with 2,468 and 1,663 lawsuits, respectively. New York, Arizona, and Texas hold distant third, fourth, and fifth positions.  Here are the numbers for the top ten states:

  1. CA: 2468
  2. FL: 1663
  3. NY: 543
  4. AZ: 335
  5. TX: 267
  6. GA: 193
  7. UT: 124
  8. PA: 102
  9. MN: 96
  10. CO: 92
Top 10 States for ADA Title III Federal Lawsuits in 2016: CA (2468); FL (1663); NY (543); AZ (335); TX (267); GA (193); UT (124); PA (102); MN (96); CO (93)
Top 10 States for ADA Title III Federal Lawsuits in 2016: CA (2468); FL (1663); NY (543); AZ (335); TX (267); GA (193); UT (124); PA (102); MN (96); CO (93)

The number of cases in Utah jumped from only one in 2015 to 124 in 2016 — due almost entirely to plaintiff Carolyn Ford who filed 105 of those suits.  Other states that experienced significant increases include Arizona, California, Colorado, and Georgia.  Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming are the only states that had no ADA Title III lawsuits at all filed in 2016.

What is driving these numbers?  While historically there had been a few predictable plaintiffs and attorneys filing Title III lawsuits, over the past year we’ve seen quite a few newcomers filing (the most common) physical accessibility lawsuits, as well as a recent proliferation of plaintiffs and attorneys filing website accessibility lawsuits.  There were more than 250 lawsuits filed in 2016 about allegedly inaccessible websites and/or mobile apps.   This number does not include the hundreds, if not thousands, of demand letters plaintiffs sent to businesses asserting website accessibility claims.

Plaintiffs who filed more than a hundred lawsuits in 2016 were Theresa Brooke (274), Scott Johnson (258), Howard Cohan (251), Lional Dalton (184), Jon Deutsch (175), Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities LLC/Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities Foundation Incorporated, Advocates for American Disabled Individuals LLC (165), Chris Langer (163), Santiago Abreu (152), Damien Moseley (141), Patricia Kennedy (138), Doug Longhini (114), Andres Gomez (113), and Carolyn Ford (105).  We expect to see fewer suits from Howard Cohan who was the subject of a news expose in late 2016 which showed videos here and here of him not appearing to be limited in his mobility.  Mr. Cohan has filed many hundreds of suits over the years concerning alleged barriers that would affect people who are limited in their mobility.

In 2016, lawmakers in both the Senate and House proposed legislation called the ADA Education and Reform Act designed to, among other things, reduce the number of lawsuits filed by serial plaintiffs by requiring them to give businesses notice of the alleged violations and an opportunity to address them before filing suit.  Those efforts stalled but may gain new momentum with a new administration that is sympathetic to the plight of small businesses and hostile to federal regulation.  There were also state legislative efforts, which will no doubt continue in 2017.

We will, as always, continue to keep tracking lawsuit filings, legislative efforts, and other breaking developments and keep you up to date — as the Title III trend shows no signs of cooling down in 2017.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Pennsylvania court rules that a museum violated the ADA when it refused to waive the entry fee for a guest’s personal care assistant. 

A federal district court judge in Pennsylvania court recently held that Title III of the ADA required the Franklin Institute (“FI”) to waive the admission fee for the personal care assistant (“PCA”) of a person with a disability to attend a movie screening at the museum.  Title III of the ADA requires public accommodations to make reasonable modifications to their normal policies practices and procedures where necessary to ensure access for individuals with disabilities, unless doing so imposes an undue burden or fundamentally alters the nature of the goods and services being offered.  The court found that waiving the fee would not pose an undue burden or result in a fundamental alteration in this case.

FI argued that free entry would result in dramatic economic consequences to the museum, including deficits, ineligibility for grants, elimination of services, budget cuts and ultimately layoffs.

The judge disagreed with colorful prose, finding no loss of revenue and nothing more than a de minimus added cost to FI; calling FI’s arguments “worthy of the antagonist in a Dickens novel.”   The judge noted that the museum’s existing practice of providing folding chairs for PCAs to sit next to wheelchair users would not cost the museum any money because the folding chairs were not normally sold to patrons.  The court also noted that FI spends substantial sums on charitable efforts and gives reduced price tickets to people who cannot afford to pay.  The court criticized FI’s argument that parents or babysitters of children must pay for entry, noting that individuals with disabilities are not the same as children.

While a well-heeded cautionary tale, this case is not of universal applicability.  It does not mean museums and other institutions must always let companions in for free.  Rather, places of public accommodation must take their obligation to make reasonable modifications to policies, procedures, and practices seriously, and conduct a meaningful analysis of whether making the modification would really impose an undue burden or result in a fundamental alteration.  The decision also serves as a reminder that disability access defenses are highly fact intensive and cannot be decided early in a case.  The practical approach in some cases may be to make the modification rather than watch fees increase in the process of litigating a case.

Edited by: Minh N. Vu & Kristina Launey