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:  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: 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.

By Jon Meer & Myra Villamor

It is a common practice among a growing group of serial plaintiffs to slap businesses with frivolous “accessibility discrimination” lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws such as the California Disabled Persons and Unruh Acts.  In these cases, a person with a disability claims that he was “discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, privileges, [or] advantages” in a business that operates as “a place of public accommodation.”  Virtually every business and facility that allows public visitors is a “public accommodation.”

These lawsuits are based on alleged violations of a long list of ADA and California Title 24 regulations that covers everything from the width of store aisles to the shape of a door knob.  Rather than seeking merely to resolve purported barriers to accessibility, these plaintiffs seek to pursue civil claims that will allow an award of hefty attorney’s fees.  Indeed, a number of courts have acknowledged that many of these lawsuits are nothing more than shakedowns, where unscrupulous law firms send disabled individuals, some with hundreds of similar lawsuits on file, to as many businesses as possible in order to generate lawsuits alleging ADA violations.

Most businesses succumb to the temptation to settle these cases because plaintiffs typically make relatively low settlement demands.  These settlements, however, are often no more than a quick fix that opens the door to future litigation, since no settlement agreement can restrict a plaintiff’s lawyer from filing additional lawsuits on behalf of other plaintiffs.  Indeed, some plaintiff’s lawyers may even conclude that a company is an easy mark after it pays a quick settlement.  Thus, many companies get hit with ADA lawsuits filed by the same plaintiff’s lawyers year after year.  A company may even find itself sued by a plaintiff with whom it has just settled, alleging violations at a different location, before the ink is dry on the settlement check.

A business should therefore assess the validity of an ADA lawsuit before deciding on a quick and seemingly inexpensive settlement.  If a business has not violated the ADA, or has determined that it can remedy any technical ADA violations (e.g., a dressing room mirror that is mounted slightly higher than allowed by the regulations) and therefore moot the ADA claims, it should consider the value of fighting the lawsuit.

In the recent case of Tony Martinez v. Columbia Sportswear USA Corp., et al. in the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of California, an entrepreneurial plaintiff with over 160 other similar lawsuits, through his attorney Lynn Hubbard, with even more similar lawsuits under his belt, alleged ADA violations based on “barriers to access” against 20 retail stores as well as the owner of an outlet mall in California.  Eighteen businesses decided to settle with the plaintiff—and many of these businesses have since been sued yet again by the same plaintiff’s attorney.  Three retailers, represented by Seyfarth Shaw, decided to fight the frivolous lawsuit, arguing that the alleged barriers either never existed or had been remedied, thereby mooting the plaintiff’s ADA claims.  Just this month, Judge Garland Burrell granted all three retailers summary judgment, holding that the alleged barriers never or no longer existed.  All three retailers are in the process of seeking attorney’s fees and costs from the plaintiff.

A business that successfully defeats a frivolous ADA lawsuit may recover its reasonable attorney’s fees, including litigation expenses and costs.  An award of attorney’s fees is a significant deterrent to future lawsuits.  Courts have granted large attorney’s fee awards to businesses even when the business could have settled the case for an amount much less than the fees incurred.  And while collecting fees may be difficult—few plaintiffs are likely to have assets to pay a six-figure award—a prevailing business may place liens on settlements and judgments from the plaintiffs’ numerous other lawsuits, thereby effectively shutting down those plaintiffs as serial ADA litigants.

While fighting ADA suits and collecting fees and costs may be a lengthy process, the advantages are considerable.  By refusing to settle frivolous cases, businesses send a strong message that will ensure that the same plaintiff, plaintiff’s counsel or other law firms that engage in similar shakedown tactics will think twice about targeting those businesses again.

By Minh N. Vu

Must restaurants, supermarkets, hotels, and other public accommodations allow individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by miniature horses that perform work or tasks related to their disabilities?  In new ADA Title III regulations published on September 15, 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said yes, subject to a few limitations.  According to DOJ, service miniature horses are an alterative to for people allergic to dogs, they live longer, and can be housebroken just like a dog.  Although the miniature horse rule usually surprises people when they first learn about it, it went into effect on March 15, 2011 without much controversy.  Earlier this year, miniature horses used as service animals received media attention after a disabled plaintiff sued two California retail stores that allegedly would not let him in with his miniature horse.

On May 10, 2012, the House passed an amendment to an appropriations bill (H.R. 5326) that bars the use of appropriated funds to implement the miniature horse rule.  It is unclear if the amendment will become law but we will certainly let you know as soon as we hear.  In the meantime, you can read more about the amendment from its author, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and DisabilityLaw blogger reaction here.