Seyfarth Synopsis: Florida’s recently-enacted House Bill 727 gives businesses a way to deter serial plaintiffs from suing them in Florida courts.

Watching businesses deal with the at least 1,663 ADA Title III access suits filed in federal court in Florida in 2016 motivated Florida legislators to take action with House Bill 727 (“HB 727”) which went into effect on July 1, 2017. One of bill’s sponsors, Rep. Tom Leek, claims that “[t]his law give the ADA back to the people for whom it was written, Americans with disabilities.” We are not quite so optimistic.

Under HB 727, a business that hires a “qualified expert” to inspect its premises to either verify conformity with ADA facilities access requirements, or to develop a compliance plan, can have that information considered in a lawsuit filed in a court within the state of Florida, provided that the certificate of conformity or remediation plan has been filed with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (the “DBPR”). The court “must consider” any such remediation plan or certificate of conformity “and determine[s] if the plaintiff’s complaint was filed in good faith and if the plaintiff is entitled to attorney fees and costs.”

Here’s how it would work: An owner of a place of public accommodation pays a “qualified expert” to inspect its premises. If the expert concludes that the facility complies with the ADA, the business can submit a “certificate of conformity” to the DBPR stating that the premises conforms to Title III.  Certificates of conformity are valid for three years and must include: the date that the premises was inspected, the name of the “qualified expert,” proof of the expert’s qualifications, and a statement from the qualified expert attesting that the information contained in the certificate is complete and accurate.

Businesses whose facilities do not fully comply with the ADA can submit a remediation plan to the DBPR indicating that the facility intends to conform with ADA requirements within a reasonable amount of time that does not exceed 10 years. In addition to the requirements applicable to the certificate of conformity, the remediation plan must include the specific remedial measures that the place of public accommodation will undertake, and the anticipated date of completion.

To be a “qualified expert,” one must be a building code inspector, architect, engineer, contractor, or “person who has prepared a remediation plan related to a claim under Title III … that has been accepted by a federal court in a settlement agreement or court proceeding, or who has been qualified as an expert in Title III … by a federal court.” This means that an experienced defense attorney who has prepared a remediation plan for a court approved settlement could be considered a “qualified expert.”

HB 727 is not likely to have much impact on the number of ADA Title III lawsuits filed in Florida for several reasons. First, the law will likely only apply to ADA lawsuits filed in state court, and most ADA Title III lawsuits are filed in federal court. This is because under the Supremacy Clause of the United States constitution, Florida state’s requirement that a court must consider remediation plans and certifications of conformity are likely preempted by the ADA and will not be applied to a plaintiff’s federal lawsuit. Second, given that HB 727 does not explicitly render an access lawsuit moot just because there is a remediation plan or certificate of conformity on file, businesses will be reluctant to publicize access barriers in their facilities in a publicly-filed document, which plaintiffs can still use to sue them. Third, having a court consider the existence of a remediation plan or certificate of conformity in deciding whether to award a plaintiff attorneys’ fees is not likely to deter plaintiffs who know that defendant businesses will need to spend a lot of money litigating before a court ever considers either of these documents.  Fourth, HB 727 does nothing to address the explosion of website access litigation under the ADA in Florida which has been a key driver in the increased number of lawsuits in the past 12 months. Indeed, as we have previously reported (here and here), California has similar legislation to HB 727, yet California still had approximately 2,468 ADA Title III filings in federal court in 2016 and continues, along with Florida, to be a hotbed for ADA Title III litigation.

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: In an apparent effort to stop one plaintiff’s lawsuit spree, the Nevada Attorney General moves to intervene in a federal ADA Title III lawsuit arguing that the plaintiff failed to provide notice to the state agency responsible for enforcing Nevada’s antidiscrimination law before filing suit.

On Wednesday, August 9, the Nevada Attorney General filed a motion to intervene in an ADA Title III lawsuit filed by serial plaintiff Kevin Zimmerman who (according the motion) had sued more than 275 Nevada businesses in federal courts in the past seven months.

The motion to intervene argues that Title III of the ADA requires private plaintiffs to – before filing in federal court – provide 30 days’ notice to the state agency responsible for enforcing state laws that prohibit the same type of discriminatory conduct at issue in the federal suit.  The Nevada Attorney General explained that the notice gives the state enforcement agencies an opportunity to conduct their own investigation and take action.  The brief notes that there is an exception to this notice requirement where a plaintiff has actual notice that the defendant does not intend to comply with the law, but Mr. Zimmerman did not plead that he had actual notice of any such intent.  This is an interesting argument that could be a useful defense strategy in some ADA Title III cases, though it has been rejected as the basis for a dispositive ruling by the Ninth Circuit in Botosan v. Paul McNally Realty.

The Nevada Attorney General’s motion to intervene is not the first time that a state attorney general has stepped in to thwart the actions of serial plaintiffs filing accessibility lawsuits.  Last year, the Arizona Attorney General intervened in and secured the dismissal of 1700 cases filed against Arizona businesses under the Arizonians with Disabilities Act (not the ADA), as we reported here.

Stay tuned for more developments in Nevada – a state that only had 6 ADA Title III lawsuits in all of 2016.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Two New York federal judges recently said that the ADA covers websites (even those not connected to a physical place) and one held that working on improving the accessibility of one’s website does not make the ADA claim moot.

The number of district court judges siding with plaintiffs in website accessibility cases is increasing. On June 13, a Florida federal judge issued the first web accessibility trial verdict against grocer Winn Dixie for having a website that could not be used by the blind plaintiff.  Two days later, a California federal judge held that a blind plaintiff’s website accessibility lawsuit against retailer Hobby Lobby could proceed to discovery.  Now two federal judges in New York have weighed in, denying restaurant Five Guys’ and retailer Blick’s motions to dismiss lawsuits alleging that the defendants’ inaccessible websites violate the ADA and New York State and City civil rights laws. Both judges found that: (1) websites are subject to the ADA, regardless of whether the goods and services are offered online and in physical locations; and (2) courts don’t need agency regulations setting a standard for website accessibility to decide whether a website violates the ADA. The court in Five Guys additionally held that being in the process of improving a website’s accessibility is very different from having successfully completed that process to meet the mootness standard of being “absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” It summarily rejected the restaurant’s mootness argument on that basis.

In the Blick putative class action, Eastern District Court Judge Weinstein issued a lengthy 38-page order on August 1 that addressed the issue of whether a nexus to a physical place of business is required to subject a website to the ADA. The opinion expressed sympathy for blind individuals who are unable to use some websites with their screen reader software and marshalled every possible argument in favor of finding that all websites that fall within the twelve types of businesses classified as “places of public accommodation” are covered by the ADA.  Judge Weinstein first surveyed relevant decisions from federal courts in other circuits.  Although the Ninth Circuit is the only appellate court that has actually addressed the coverage of a website under Title III of the ADA (all other Court of Appeals decisions have concerned other matters, mostly insurance products), he found that the Third, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits have held that only businesses with a “nexus” to a physical location are subject to the ADA.  He characterized this interpretation of the law as “narrow” because it would mean that “a business that operates solely through the Internet and has no customer-facing physical location is under no obligation to make [its] website accessible.” The court then considered First and Seventh Circuit decisions which have held that a business does not need a physical place of business where customers go to be considered public accommodations under the ADA.

Finally, looking to its own Court of Appeals (which has not squarely addressed the question of whether a business with no physical location can be covered by Title III of the ADA or considered a website accessibility case), the Blick court relied upon an extended interpretation of the Second Circuit’s holding in Pallozzi – an insurance policy case – to hold that a business that has no physical place of business can be a covered public accommodation under the ADA.  Notably, the defendant in Pallozzi had a physical place of business where the plaintiff had purchased the allegedly discriminatory insurance product.  The Second Circuit held in Pallozzi that Title III of the ADA reaches beyond access barriers at a physical location and extends to the terms of the products sold from that physical location. It did not hold, nor even state in dicta, that a business with no physical location is covered by the ADA in the first place, or that a business’ website is covered by the ADA.

In holding that a website does not need a nexus to a physical location to be covered by the ADA, Judge Weinstein aligned himself with two other District Court judges in the Second Circuit (District of Vermont Judge William K. Sessions III and New York Southern District Judge Katherine Forrest) who reached the same conclusion in cases brought against Scribd and Five Guys, respectively.   

The Blick decision also rejects the recent Bang & Olufsen decision out of the Southern District of Florida, which followed the Target case in holding an ADA website access claim can only survive a motion to dismiss if the website’s inaccessibility has an actual nexus to the business’ physical location. The Bang & Olufsen court held that the plaintiff had not stated an ADA Title III claim because his complaint did not allege that the alleged website barriers in any way impeded his ability to shop at the physical store. The Blick court found this interpretation of the ADA “absurd,” as it would require that only select aspects of Blick’s website and online presence be accessible to the blind, such as allowing disabled individuals “a right to ‘pre-shop’ in their home, but no right to actually make a purchase in their home,” and provide disabled individuals “no right whatsoever to purchase goods or services from companies whose business models (e.g. television shopping channels, catalogs, online-only) are premised on having customers shop only from home.”

The court concluded its 22-page discussion of the issue by stating the plaintiff “has a substantive right to obtain effective access to Blick’s website to make purchases, learn about products, and enjoy the other goods, services, accommodations, and privileges the defendant’s website provides to the general public.” It also found that the plaintiff might be able to enforce his rights through a class action, but that issue would wait until after the parties’ motion(s) for summary judgment. The court also stated that it would convene a “Science Day” where experts would demonstrate web access technology to the court “to explore how burdensome it would be for the defendant to make its website compatible with available technology.”

Both the Blick and Five Guys decisions rejected the argument that Justice Department regulations setting website accessibility requirements are necessary for a finding that a defendant has violated the ADA by having an inaccessible website. Like the District of Massachusetts in denying MIT and Harvard’s motions to dismiss, and the Central District of California in denying Hobby Lobby’s motion (contrary to a different decision out of that same district) the Blick court rejected the primary jurisdiction argument on the basis that it is the court’s job to interpret and apply statutes and regulations and the risk of inconsistent rulings is outweighed by plaintiff’s right to prompt adjudication of his claim. The court discussed the long history of the Justice Department’s website accessibility rulemaking efforts before concluding that “t[]he court will not delay in adjudicating [plaintiff’s] claim on the off-chance the DOJ promptly issues regulations it has contemplated issuing for seven years but has yet to make significant progress on.”  Both courts rejected the defendants’ due process arguments, stating no standard set by statute or regulation for is needed for the ADA’s requirements of “reasonable modifications,” “auxiliary aids and services,” and “full and equal enjoyment” to apply to website accessibility. In rejecting Five Guys’ argument that there are no regulations setting forth accessibility standards for websites, the Five Guys court noted that there are steps defendant could take, such as using the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Finally, the Blick decision addressed the coverage of website accessibility claims under the New York State Human Rights Law, New York State Civil Rights Law, and New York City Human Rights Law, and found that such claims were covered to the same extent as they are under Title III of the ADA.

While there is no way of knowing whether other federal judges in New York will agree with the holdings of District Judges Weinstein and Forrest, more lawsuits will likely be filed in New York after these decisions.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department agreed with the Fifth Circuit and defendant Coca-Cola that a vending machine is not a place of public accommodation and that public accommodations can comply with the ADA by providing assistance to customers in lieu of having accessible self-service equipment.

The Supreme Court recently asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to weigh in on whether vending machines are places of public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA.  The Court’s request related to a pending a Petition for Certiorari filed by a blind plaintiff who unsuccessfully sued Coca-Cola for allegedly owning and/or operating vending machines that are not independently usable by the blind.  Both the District Court and the Fifth Circuit had concluded that such machines are not public accommodations under the ADA.

The DOJ’s amicus brief unequivocally stated its position that vending machines are not public accommodations.  The DOJ advanced a number of arguments in support of its position that a vending machine does not fall within any of the 12 categories of businesses that are considered public accommodations under the statute.  Among other things, the DOJ stated that a vending machine is not a “sales establishment” covered by the law but rather a piece of equipment typically found within public accommodations facilities.

The most significant commentary from the DOJ’s brief concerns a public accommodation’s obligations with regard to self-service equipment provided for public use.  The DOJ stated:

the operator of a public accommodation in which the vending machines is located is better suited to determine whether such changes [(i.e. making the vending machines independently accessible by blind users)] are the most efficient means of complying with the ADA.  When buying or leasing vending machines, some business owners may insist upon the inclusion of accessible features.  Others, however, might choose instead to install the machines at locations within their establishments where their employees will be available to assist customers with disabilities.  The business owner is better positioned than the seller or lessor of the machines to determine what method of ensuring accessibility will be most effective at a particular location.

In other words, it is the DOJ’s position that providing assistance to customers with disabilities is a lawful way to provide access in lieu of procuring accessible vending machines.  Presumably this position would extend to all self-service equipment provided for customer use — at least when there are no privacy concerns.  (In 2014, the DOJ had filed a Statement of Interest in a different case involving allegedly inaccessible point-of-sale devices where it took the position that a public accommodation must provide individuals with disabilities independent access to point-of-sale devices which require the entry of Personal Identification Numbers (PINs).)

Also significant was DOJ’s view that the Supreme Court should not grant review of the case in order to address the question of whether online-only businesses are covered by Title III of the ADA.  The DOJ noted that while “questions concerning Title III’s application to non-physical establishments – including websites or digital services – may someday warrant” the Supreme Court’s attention, this case was not the time or place to do so since the plaintiff here encountered the machines in person, not via telephone or internet.  The DOJ’s suggestion that the Court should defer on this issue suggests that the Department may be evaluating its prior position that online-only businesses are covered by the ADA.

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.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Today’s first impression trial verdict finding retailer Winn-Dixie liable under Title III of the ADA for having an inaccessible website suggests that public accommodations should focus on their website accessibility efforts now.

As we reported yesterday, Florida federal District Court Judge Robert Scola last week presided over the first trial in the history of the ADA about an allegedly inaccessible website.  Today, Judge Scola issued a 13-page Verdict and Order finding that grocer Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the ADA by having a website that was not useable by plaintiff Juan Carlos Gil to download coupons, order prescriptions, and find store locations.  Mr. Gil is blind and uses screen reader software to access websites.  Judge Scola ordered injunctive relief, including a draft three-year injunction we have included below, and awarded Mr. Gil his attorneys’ fees and costs.

Although the decision is not binding on any other federal courts or judges – not even in the same judicial district – it is significant for a number of reasons.

First, it is the first decision to hold, after a full trial, that a public accommodation violated Title III of the ADA by having an inaccessible website.  To the extent that businesses are considering whether to settle or litigate these cases, this decision makes the possibility of an adverse verdict much more real.

Second, the draft injunction adopts the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as the accessibility standard that Winn-Dixie must meet in making its website accessible.  WCAG 2.0 AA is a set of guidelines developed by a private group of accessibility experts and has not been adopted as the legal standard for public accommodation websites, although it has been incorporated into many consent decrees, settlement agreements, and is the standard the Department of Justice referenced in the Title II rulemaking process.  The court’s adoption of this set of guidelines further points to WCAG 2.0 AA as the de facto standard for website accessibility.

Third, the court did not consider the $250,000 cost of making the website accessible to be an undue burden.  The court said this cost “pales in comparison to the $2 million Winn-Dixie spent in 2015 to open the website and the $7 million it spent in 2016 to remake the website for the Plenti program.”

Fourth, commenting on an issue causing many businesses concern, the court held Winn-Dixie responsible for the entire website’s lack of accessibility even though parts of the website are operated by third party vendors.  It stated: “[M]any, if not most, of the third party vendors may already be accessible to the disabled and, if not, Winn-Dixie has a legal obligation to require them to be accessible if they choose to operate within the Winn-Dixie website.”

The court issued the following draft injunction, and ordered the parties to confer about the deadlines to be inserted in the blanks.

***

Pursuant to the terms of this Order and Injunction, Winn-Dixie, Inc.:

  1. Shall not, no later than _____(date) _____, deny individuals with disabilities, including the Plaintiff, the opportunity to participate and benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations provided through its website www.winndixie.com. The website must be accessible by individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones.
  2. Shall not, no later than _____(date) _____, provide individuals with disabilities, including the Plaintiff, an unequal opportunity to participate and benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations provided through its website www.winndixie.com. The website must be accessible by individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets and smart phones.
  3. No later than _____(date) _____, shall adopt and implement a Web Accessibility Policy which ensures that its website conforms with the WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  4. No later than _____(date) _____, shall require any third party vendors who participate on its website to be fully accessible to the disabled by conforming with WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  5. No later than _____(date) _____, shall make publicly available and directly link from the www.winndixie.com homepage, a statement of WinnDixie’s Accessibility Policy to ensure the persons with disabilities have full and equal enjoyment of its website and shall accompany the public policy statement with an accessible means of submitting accessibility questions and problems.
  6. No later than _____(date) _____, and at least once yearly thereafter, shall provide mandatory web accessibility training to all employees who write or develop programs or code for, or who publish final content to, www.winndixie.com on how to conform all web content and services with WCAG 2.0 criteria.
  7. No later than _____(date) _____, and at least once every three months thereafter, shall conduct automated accessibility tests of its website to identify any instances where the website is no longer in conformance with WCAG 2.0.
  8. If the Plaintiff believes the Injunction has been violated, he shall give notice (including reasonable particulars) to the Defendant of such violation. The Defendant shall have 30 days from the notice to investigate and correct any alleged violations. If the Defendant fails to correct the violation, the Plaintiff may then seek relief from the Court.
  9. In light of what the Court has already found to be the Defendant’s sincere and serious intent to make its website accessible to all, this Injunction will expire in three years.

***

In the absence of any regulations setting forth the requirements for a website accessibility program, this injunction, once finalized, will provide a judicially-approved framework for such a program for those public accommodations that want to adopt one.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.

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.

Disabled sign pinned on cork noticeboard

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Recent guidance from the U.S. Access Board makes it more difficult for businesses to argue that the Accessible Icon constitutes “equivalent facilitation” under the ADA, even though jurisdictions such as New York and Connecticut require the use of this alternative disability access symbol.

As we previously reported, New York State and more recently, Connecticut, passed legislation requiring the use of the “Accessible Icon” in lieu of the traditional International Symbol of Access (“ISA”) in new construction and alterations whenever an accessibility sign is required by code.  But Title III of the ADA and the Architectural Barriers Act (“ABA”), which apply to public accommodations facilities and federally-funded facilities, respectively, still require the use of the ISA.  Specifically, the ADA and ABA require that the ISA be used to label and provide direction to certain accessible spaces and elements, such as restrooms, parking spaces, and check-out aisles.

This conflict has presented a quandary for businesses: Display the ISA as the ADA requires; display the Accessible Icon, as state or local codes require; or, display both symbols, which would multiply costs, negatively impact aesthetics, and potentially confuse patrons.

Last week, the U.S. Access Board, the federal agency that drafted the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (which the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) incorporated into its ADA Title III regulations) and also sets accessibility standards for federal agencies, issued a Guidance stating unequivocally that “the ISA must be used even where a state or local code or regulation specifies a different symbol.”  Although the DOJ, not the Access Board, enforces Title III of the ADA and the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the Guidance could be considered by a court in a Title III enforcement action, given the Access Board’s relevant expertise.

Is the ISA Really Outmoded?

The Accessible Icon Project began as a “street art” campaign that was apparently intended to replace the “traditional,” static figure displayed in the ISA with a more active, dynamic and positive depiction of individuals with disabilities.

The ISA (left) and the Accessible Icon (right)

The effort to replace the ISA with the Accessible Icon has faced recent hurdles.  In May 2015, the Federal Highway Administration (“FHA”) issued an Interpretation Letter stating that the use of alternative symbols of accessibility are not acceptable for traffic control device applications because they are not “unmistakably similar” to the ISA.  The agency went one step further, commenting that the use of non-conforming symbols, including “by approval of local authority,” “compromises the enforceability of these devices.” (emphasis added)  The Interpretation Letter also noted that the Access Board has not adopted or endorsed any alternative designs.

Access Board: the ISA is Still the Recognized Symbol of Accessibility

The Access Board’s Guidance states that the ISA has become a “worldwide” symbol that “reflects considerable analysis by, and consensus of, an international collection of technical experts,” including the International Organization for Standardization, which is a non-governmental organization that represents over 160 national standard-setting agencies.  In addition to the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s ADA Standards, ABA, International Building Code (“IBC”), National Fire Protection Association Standards, and ICC A117.1 also require the ISA.

No Endorsement of the Accessible Icon as “Equivalent Facilitation”

Businesses in New York or Connecticut where they are required by new state laws to use the Accessible Icon in new construction and alterations could display the Accessible Icon and take the position that its use satisfies the “equivalent facilitation” provision in Section 103 of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design.  Under Section 103, businesses may use “designs. . . as alternatives to those prescribed [by the ADA], provided they result in substantially equivalent or greater accessibility and usability.”  However, no court or agency has ruled on this issue.  The Guidance does not comment on whether the Accessible Icon would constitute “equivalent facilitation” but instead defers to the courts, and encourages those advocating for a new symbol to contact the International Organization for Standardization.

The Guidance stresses the value of uniformity and recognition over what some believe is a negative (or at least limiting) depiction of individuals with disabilities.  The ISA “promotes legibility, especially for people with low vision or cognitive disabilities,” according to the Guidance.  This supports the Access Board’s conclusion that, irrespective of conflicting state or local requirements, businesses must display the ISA where required by federal standards.

Businesses Should Carefully Consider the Use of the Accessibility Icon in Future Projects

The situation is confusing, but one thing is clear:  Businesses that do not use the traditional ISA symbol where it is required by federal law face litigation exposure under Title III of the ADA, and the Access Board’s Guidance makes the “equivalent facilitation” argument more challenging.  Businesses in New York and Connecticut should seek guidance on whether local permitting authorities have the ability to waive the Accessible Icon requirement, the consequences of not using the Accessible Icon, and the implications of using both the Accessible Icon and the ISA.

Edited by Kristina Launey and Minh Vu.