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.

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:  DOJ announces that proposed rules for state and local government websites will issue July 2017.

The DOJ announced last week in the federal government’s Unified Agenda that it will be issuing a proposed rule for state and government websites in July 2017.  The Unified Agenda provided no date for the proposed rule for public accommodations websites, however.  As we reported previously in May the DOJ had issued a Supplemental Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SANPRM) for the state and local website rulemaking  in which it stated that the results of that rulemaking would “facilitate the creation of an infrastructure for web accessibility that will be very important in the Department’s preparation of the Title III Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Web site accessibility of public accommodations.”   The SANPRM posed more than 120 questions for public comment, the period for which closed on October 7.

Given the many delays in the state and local government website rulemaking which started in 2010, we have little confidence that a proposed rule will really issue in July 2017.  Furthermore, the projected July 2017 date was likely set before the election which injects additional uncertainly for the reasons we discussed in a prior post.

Edited by Kristina Launey.

Time concept: Hourglass on computer keyboard backgroundSeyfarth Synopsis: Public entities and private businesses have been waiting for years – since 2010 – for the Department of Justice to issue regulations setting a standard for website accessibility.  The DOJ has announced that it is stepping backward rather than moving forward in that process, withdrawing its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Title II regulations applicable to public entities, and issuing a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking further comments and input.

We’ve been anxiously awaiting the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) issuance of Title II public entity website accessibility regulations – as a precursor to Title III regulations that would apply to businesses.  Apparently the wait will continue.  On Friday the DOJ announced that on April 28, 2016, it withdrew its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) titled Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities (RIN 1190-AA65).  DOJ had submitted the NPRM to the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) for review pursuant to Executive Order 12866 on July 9, 2014.

DOJ also issued a Supplemental Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“SANPRM”) titled Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities.  Its stated intent with the SANPRM is to solicit additional public comment on various issues to help DOJ “shape and further its rulemaking efforts,” citing evolutions (availability, less expensive, more widely used) in the internet, accessibility tools and assistive technologies in the six years since DOJ issued its 2010 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“ANPRM”) as the reason for this redux.  DOJ stated its expectation that public comments on the SANPRM “will be more detailed and focused than those received in response to its original 2010 ANPRM.”  As one commentator in the web accessibility community characterized the action: “DOJ: Because the web’s changed in the SIX YEARS we’ve been delaying regulations, we’re going to TOTALLY START OVER!”

The DOJ offered examples of what it seeks in the SANPRM:

  • More specific information relating to the potential application of technical accessibility requirements to the web sites of public entities under title II of ADA.
  • Information on the appropriateness of setting alternative requirements for small public entities.
  • Precise information on the costs and benefits of web accessibility that will aid in its preparation of a regulatory impact analysis.
  • More information about specific benefits, including benefits to persons with particular types of disabilities, and input on how to measure the benefits of web accessibility.
  • More information about the current level of accessibility of public entities’ web sites, including the experiences of people with disabilities accessing public entities’ web sites.
  • Specific data on the costs of web accessibility and suggestions about how to measure those costs.

In addition to the SANPRM, the DOJ stated its intent to conduct research and studies to better understand the benefits and costs of a Web accessibility regulation – as if, after all this work, it may decide a regulation governing web accessibility may cost more than the benefit it would bring?

DOJ concludes its press release on this shocking development by noting that “web accessibility continues to remain a critical component of public entities’ obligation to provide equal access to their programs, services, and activities under the ADA.”

This will no doubt have an effect on the development of Title III regulations as well.

There is more bad news for businesses that thought that they could wait for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue specific regulations before making their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities.  Federal Magistrate Judge Robertson in the District of Massachusetts recently denied motions by Harvard and MIT to dismiss or stay website accessibility class action lawsuits, and recommended that the lawsuits move forward to discovery.  The judge found that the existing law and regulations provide a basis for the deaf advocates’ claim that the universities violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide closed captioning for thousands of videos on their websites. The judge rejected the universities’ arguments that the court dismiss or stay the case while DOJ works on its proposed rules for website accessibility, finding that the court did not need the agency’s expertise to adjudicate the cases.  The judge did, however, give weight to the DOJ’s interpretation of the ADA expressed in its Statement of Interest filed in the Harvard and MIT lawsuits.

The Magistrate Judge’s recommendation will not be a final order of the court until U.S. District Court Judge Mastroianni adopts it.  Even after adoption, the decision will not be a finding that the universities have violated the law or that they must caption all videos on their websites.  The ruling would simply allow the cases to move forward to discovery.  As Judge Robertson noted, the schools will have an opportunity to assert various defenses later in the case.  For example, Harvard and MIT might show that they provide access to their videos in some alternative, equivalent matter.  They might also seek to establish that providing closed captioning for some or all videos on their websites would constitute an undue burden or fundamentally alter the nature of the goods and services that they offer.

There are many takeaways from Judge Robertson’s 45-page opinion, but we see two very basic, practical points:

  • Judges, at least thus far, have not been receptive to the argument that there is no obligation to make websites accessible until DOJ issues regulations on the subject. In 2015, a federal judge in Pittsburgh also denied a defendant bank’s motion to dismiss or for a stay of a website accessibility case, without any discussion or explanation.
  • Courts seem reluctant to dismiss website accessibility lawsuits at the beginning of the case. This means that the cases will likely continue to discovery and cause defendants to incur potentially substantial costs of defense, even if the defendants ultimately prevails on the merits.

The Harvard and MIT decisions will undoubtedly fuel the continuing explosion of website accessibility cases.  We are working to determine how many such suits have been filed and will report it to you as soon as we have it.

Edited by Kristina M. Launey.

iStock_000018867002_LargeOh, the irony.  Our federal government is filing lawsuits against private businesses and universities for having allegedly inaccessible websites and mobile apps when its own agencies have inaccessible websites.  In April 2014, we reported that the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and three blind federal contractors sued the General Services Administration , alleging GSA’s own website, SAM.gov, is inaccessible and denies certain blind and visually impaired government contractors the ability to register or timely renew their government contracts online.

On Tuesday, November 10, 2015, the plaintiffs announced that the parties had reached a settlement, which requires GSA to make significant changes to SAM.gov to make it more accessible.  The announcement did not reference the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), even though the Department of Justice has been using this set of guidelines for all of its website settlements with private businesses.

The plaintiffs report that following GSA’s implementation of the agreed-to changes, the website will undergo review by another independent accessibility expert. In addition, the agreement creates a process by which members of the blind community will test and provide feedback on future changes to SAM.gov.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs stated in a press release: “The Internet is part of our daily lives, and being unable to access any website—much less a website that is essential to doing business with the federal government—puts members of the blind community at an economic disadvantage. It is unfortunate that it took the filing of a lawsuit to bring about meaningful change but we thank GSA for working collaboratively with us and our clients to make SAM.gov accessible.”   And, “everyone, including the blind community, deserves access to the Internet, which has become a means for independence, information and commerce.

We are trying to get a copy of the actual agreement and will update this post when we do.

Time concept: Hourglass on computer keyboard backgroundBy Minh N. Vu

According to the Spring 2015 Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will issue no proposed regulations for public accommodations websites until least April 2016 — nearly a year from now. However, the proposed regulations for state and local government websites, originally slated for December 2014, should be out any minute. We know because the Unified Agenda has a May 2015 projected publication date for those proposed regs — which has already passed. This is frustrating news for all affected parties who have been clamoring for clarity while the DOJ has moved forward with enforcement activities against allegedly inaccessible websites in the absence of even a proposed rule. We suspect that the delay may be related to the Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) (i.e., cost benefit analysis) that the DOJ must conduct for the proposed rule.

Any proposed rule requiring public accommodations’ websites to be accessible will have an enormous cost impact. Millions of businesses with a website presence will need to hire consultants to figure out what must be done to make their websites accessible, modify their websites or pay others to do so, pay consultants to test and verify the compliance of their websites, and maintain the accessibility of their websites going forward. Quantifying the cost of these efforts, in addition to any cost to society resulting from businesses choosing to provide less content or functionality on their websites, is no small task.

But alas, we will not be reading the proposed rule or the RIA for at least another eleven months.

Edited by Kristina Launey

Domain names and internet conceptBy Minh N. Vu

For today’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we have yet another Department of Justice enforcement action to report relating to the allegedly inaccessible websites and other technologies.  This time, DOJ is trying to intervene in an existing lawsuit, Dudley v. Miami University, filed by a former Miami University student who is blind.  Although the lawsuit is brought under Title II of the ADA which applies to state and local government entities and not public accommodations, the obligations under the Title II and III are very similar. Thus, the DOJ’s position in this lawsuit provides useful insight into how it would treat private universities and other public accommodations covered by Title III of the ADA.

On May 12, 2015, the DOJ sought permission from the court to intervene in the lawsuit as an additional plaintiff.  If the request is granted, the lawsuit’s scope will widen.  As an individual plaintiff, Ms. Dudley can only seek injunctive relief that relates to her own disability (blindness) and attorneys’ fees.  The DOJ, on the other hand, can and is seeking injunctive relief that would benefit people with other types of disabilities such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing.  In addition, the DOJ can seek compensatory damages for past and present students who have been harmed, and a civil penalty of up to $75,000.

The DOJ’s action stems from the University’s obligation ensure that its communications with individuals with disabilities is effective.  One question we often get is whether a public accommodation is required to ensure that all of its communications with the public are effective, or just those that relate to the core goods and services that the public accommodation offers (e.g, communications by a university to students and prospective students about its courses and programs).  Some advocacy groups have taken the position that all material posted on any university website must be accessible for the benefit of the public at large, even if the material is not directly related to any coursework or other programs offered by the school. Continue Reading Another DOJ Action over Allegedly Inaccessible Websites and Other Technologies

Question markBy Minh N. Vu and Kristina M. Launey

Seyfarth’s ADA Title III Team — along with many businesses and disability advocates — has closely monitored the status of the Justice Department’s (DOJ) proposed website regulations since the DOJ started its process in September 2010. We were surprised to hear NPR’s March 7 report by Todd Bookman that the DOJ is “scheduled to release regulations this month”. Bookman did not provide any further specificity as to which regulations are expected to issue, or reveal the source of this information, leaving all who have been closely following the regulations perplexed.

As we have reported, DOJ has been working on two sets of website regulations: One applicable to state and local governments and another for public accommodations (i.e., private entities that do business with the public). The proposed website regulations for state and local governments were slated to issue in December 2014, but did not. Those proposed regulations have been under review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since July 2014. OMB is the last stop for all regulations before they are published. Thus, we have to assume that the NPR report is referring to these state and local government website proposed regulations, which could come out of OMB review for publication any day.

We seriously doubt that the NPR story was referring to proposed regulations for public accommodations websites for two reasons: First, DOJ’s last official projected date for these proposed regulations is June 2015. Second, DOJ has not yet even submitted any proposed regulations for public accommodations websites to OMB for its mandatory review and approval. Before publication, OMB must review the proposed rule to ensure it is consistent with applicable law, the President’s priorities, and the principles set forth in Executive Order 12866. The review also ensures that decisions made by one agency do not conflict with the policies or actions taken or planned by another agency. Executive Order 12866 also requires agencies to calculate the cost and benefit of the every proposed and final regulation. For example, if the proposed rule prohibits businesses from posting content on their websites that is not accessible to individuals with disabilities (e.g., videos that do not have captioning for the deaf or audio descriptions for the blind), OMB would have to consider whether such a rule would cause businesses to limit the amount of content that they decide to make available on the Internet.

Our take on the timing of the proposed regulation for public accommodations websites is consistent with what we heard last week at CSUN’s 30th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference. The Chief of the DOJ Disability Rights Section, Rebecca Bond, would not state when any website regulations would issue. Attorney Lainey Feingold, who was quoted in the NPR story, also said in her presentation that she did not know when any proposed regulations would come out. However, in both the NPR story and a previous story, Bookman made his March regulation-issuance prediction without naming a source for the information.

When issued, the proposed regulations for state and local government websites will likely provide some insight into the content of the proposed regulations for public accommodations websites that are due out in June. However, DOJ will have to address a host of issues in the latter set of regulations that will not be as relevant for state and local government websites.

As always, follow our blog for the latest on DOJ’s proposed website regulations.