Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs who pursued numerous web accessibility actions under Title III of the ADA are now using website accessibility to test the limits of a different area of law – employment law – California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Over the past few years, we have frequently written about the proliferation of demand letters and lawsuits alleging that a business denied a usually blind or vision-impaired individual access to its goods and services because the business’ website was not accessible, in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state laws. One firm that pursued many web accessibility actions under Title III and California’s Unruh Act (including a success in the Bags N’ Baggage case decided in plaintiff’s favor by a California state court) is now going after employers.  In recent demand letters and lawsuits, they are alleging that employment websites are not accessible to blind job seekers, in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), California’s corollary to Title I of the ADA.

While this blog, and Seyfarth’s Disability Access Team, are focused on disability access issues affecting places of public accommodation that provide goods and services to the general public (not employees, though many of our team members are employment specialists as well), this emerging litigation trend is worthy of our discussion here because it is an extension of the tsunami of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits pursued under Title III, involving the same technological and other issues, as well as the same plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys.  But there is one big difference – the legal standard that applies to employment disability discrimination claims is different from the standard applied to disability discrimination claims brought against public accommodations. Title III is unique from other anti-discrimination statutes in that it requires (with exceptions) businesses take affirmative, proactive measures to ensure individuals with disabilities are afforded equal access to their goods and services. FEHA prohibits discrimination against individuals in employment.  It requires employers, upon notice that an employee or applicant for employment requires a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of his or her job, or to apply for employment, to engage in the interactive process to devise such a reasonable accommodation.  The employer does not need to provide the employee or applicant’s requested accommodation as long as the accommodation provided is effective.

In the cases filed thus far, such as those by Dominic Martin, Roy Rios, and Abelardo Martinez in Orange County and San Diego Superior Courts in California last week, the plaintiffs argue that they are blind residents of California who want to enter the workforce, attempted to apply using the defendant’s online application, but could not because it was inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. They claim the WAVE tool confirmed the website’s inaccessibility (an automated tool like WAVE, while useful, cannot be relied upon to determine whether a website is accessible or not, let alone useable by an individual with a disability).  In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs claim that they twice asked the defendant to remove the barriers and were ignored.  Plaintiffs also claim that removing the barriers would take only a few hours (which anyone who has worked in the website accessibility space knows is rarely if ever possible).  Plaintiffs allege these requests that defendant remove the barriers were requests for reasonable accommodation, though they were sent by the plaintiff’s attorney and not the actual individual seeking employment; thus possibly perceived as litigation demand letters rather than legitimate requests for reasonable accommodation.  The plaintiffs allege that the companies did not respond and that they have a policy to deny disabled individuals equal employment by refusing to remove the barriers on the website.  Each plaintiff alleges only a single legal claim for violation of FEHA, even expressly noting he is not asserting claims for violation of any federal law or regulation.

Will these claims find any success in the courts under the applicable law?  We will be watching.  In the meantime, businesses that have been focusing efforts on consumer-facing websites to mitigate risk under Title III should be aware of this new trend (if you have not already received such a letter).

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.

This morning, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, DOJ participated by issuing its Spring 2016 unified agenda, including upcoming regulatory actions on web accessibility and movie captioning.

Click on the links to the right in the bullets below for the lowdown on each rule, but here are a few highlights:

AA65: State and Local Government web accessibility regulations.  No need to follow this like a bloodhound; the DOJ just issued a Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which we reported here.  Watch this space for an imminent detailed blog on the SANPRM – so you don’t have to slog through the 30 pages of small print.  The comment period closes in August 2016, and the NPRM is due out in July 2017, with comment period on the NPRM to end in September 2017.

AA60: Regulation to reflect statutory amendments to the definition of disability applicable to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. NPRM due in July 2016, with final action expected by years’ end.

AA59:  Regulations to clarify terms within the definition of disability and to establish standards that must be applied to determine if a person has a covered disability under Title II and Title III, due to statutory changes made in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Final rule due May 2016 (like, now!)

AA63:  Movie Captioning and Audio Description regulations.  The final rule is due July 2016; read our take on these regs here.

  • DOJ/CRT – Prerule Stage – Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability: Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Governments: 1190-AA65
  • DOJ/CRT – Proposed Rule Stage – Implementation of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973): 1190-AA60
  • DOJ/CRT – Final Rule Stage – Implementation of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (Title II and Title III of the ADA): 1190-AA59
  • DOJ/CRT – Final Rule Stage – Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Movie Captioning and Audio Description: 1190-AA63

So it’s possible we could have several interesting things happen in 2016.  Do we believe that everything will come out when DOJ says it will?  No.  No, we do not, if history is any indication.  Will we (Susan Ryan) check these diligently every day like our old friend Sisyphus with his boulder?  Yes.  Yes, she will.

Oh, and in case you remember that old chestnut AA61, the Title III almost-proposed web regulations (which we’ve reported on ad nauseum), that apparently does not merit an entry in the Unified Agenda.  The focus is all Title II (AA65) now.  There’s a mention of the Title III almost-proposed regulations in the AA65 write-up, but no indication of any status.

Stay tuned… and if you’re not taking advantage of any of the great information provided by various entities as part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day – all about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) accessibility and users with different disabilities, check it out: http://www.globalaccessibilityawarenessday.org/!

By Kristina Launey

Ebay has announced that it has teamed with The National Federation of the Blind in a “Web 2 Sustainable Accessibility Partnership Agreement”, aimed to “enhance the accessibility of eBay’s website and mobile applications” Ebay’s announcement states that, through the partnership, “blind buyers and sellers on eBay who use technologies such as text-to-speech screen readers and Braille displays will have even greater access to eBay’s website and its applications for smartphones and tablets.”

As we have previously reported, though the expected DOJ regulations setting requirements and technical standards for public accommodations websites have been pushed back repeatedly, most recently to March 2015, many businesses are taking a proactive approach to this issue.

By Kristina M. Launey and Minh N. Vu

If you follow our blog, you know that, even though the Department of Justice has issued no formal regulations yet setting a web accessibility standard, private plaintiffs, the DOJ, and advocacy groups have become increasingly active in pursuing legal action on the position that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act require accessible websites.  As an example, the DOJ recently filed an enforcement lawsuit against a large online tax preparation service alleging that the service’s website is inaccessible and then entered into a consent decree with the service that requires compliance with a set of stringent, privately developed website accessibility guidelines that no federal agency, including DOJ, has adopted for itself.  It would appear that disability rights groups are not going to tolerate this double standard.

Yesterday, the American Council of the Blind and three individuals filed suit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia against the United States General Services Administration, alleging GSA’s own website, SAM.gov, is inaccessible and does not comply with Section 504, leaving certain blind and visually impaired government contractors unable to register or timely renew their government contracts.  The Complaint even quotes the DOJ: “As the Department of Justice has recently noted, “an inaccessible website puts [persons with disabilities] at a great disadvantage and further perpetuates a feeling of dependence and reliance on others.”  The Complaint further notes that the GSA – which requires federal contractors provide blind and visually impaired users equal access to contractors’ websites in compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act – should be required to abide by the same rule in ensuring access to SAM.gov.

The Complaint cites in detail some of the alleged barriers to access on SAM.gov, generally summarized as “a number of features on SAM.gov that are not “viewable” by a talking screen reader of the sort that millions of blind and visually impaired individuals rely on to navigate the Internet, ensuring that SAM.gov contains keyboard recognizable codes, and providing “helpdesk” assistance that is sensitive and responsive to the needs and concerns of blind and visually impaired contractors.”  As a result, blind and visually impaired federal contractors allegedly must divulge sensitive, personal information, such as their usernames, passwords, and social security numbers to third parties so that the third parties could enter the individuals’ information into SAM.gov. The Complaint further alleges that SAM.gov’s helpdesk and technical assistance staff are not equipped to effectively assist blind and visually impaired users.

We’ll follow this litigation as it unfolds.

By Kevin Fritz

Members of the European Parliament voted last week to strengthen a proposed European Directive on Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies’ Websites.  The beefed up version of the directive would require all UK public sector websites to be accessible to users with disabilities; not just those sites proposed by the European Commission, such as social security benefits and enrolment in higher education.  The proposed directive is intended to benefit individuals with disabilities across the EU, and increase the potential of the internal market for web accessibility products and services.  The amended version would also strengthen monitoring of EU bodies’ conformance with the law.  Until the EU institutes its own specific technical web accessibility standards, the level of accessibility required by the proposed directive would be level AA of the international technical standard WCAG 2.0.  And while the recommended amendments are likely to become adopted, it is unlikely that a final agreement will take place before early 2015.

For more on the new EU public sector web accessibility rules, check out: http://bit.ly/1orjE1a.

Edited by Kristina Launey and Minh Vu