Articles Posted in Websites

In a case indicating that courts may be weary of serial plaintiffs filing multiple cookie-cutter lawsuits, a United States District Judge in the Northern District of New York has ordered a plaintiff to show that she has standing to bring ADA hotel website accessibility lawsuits to federal court.

The disabled plaintiff, who resides in Florida, has filed 29 nearly identical ADA website cases in the Northern District of New York seeking injunctive relief, damages, and attorneys’ fees. In this specific case, Deborah Laufer v. 1110 Western Albany LLC and Ryan LLC, the plaintiff sought an unopposed default judgement when the defendant failed to respond to the complaint.

The Court however, determined the plaintiff failed to establish Article III standing to bring the lawsuit and refused to enter the default judgement.

Achieving Article III standing in federal court

To have standing to seek injunctive relief in federal court, plaintiffs must establish they have sustained (or are in immediate danger of sustaining) a direct injury as the result of the alleged wrongdoing, and that the injury is concrete and particularized, not hypothetical or speculative.

In this case, the plaintiff claimed injury due to the alleged lack of information on a hotel’s website about accommodations for disabled guests, as is required under the ADA’s 28 C.F.R. Section 36.302(e).

But Hon. Brenda K. Sannes, of the United States District Court of the Northern District of New York states in an Order dated May 8, 2020:

“There appears to be a serious question as to whether Plaintiff has established standing, in this, or any of her other cases, and thus whether the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over these actions. See, e.g. Laufer v. Laxmi & Sons LLC, 1:19-cv-01501 (BKS/L) (Dkt. No. 15, at 7. May 6, 2020). (“There are no facts in the Complaint or Plaintiff’s affidavit indicating that she has ever traveled to Rensselaer, New York, or anywhere in New York, or that she has any reason to travel anywhere in New York or any reason to seek lodging anywhere in New York.”) Continue ›

Many hotels are not aware that the ADA imposes several requirements during the reservations process, including posting descriptions of the hotel’s physical accessibility features on its online reservations system.  Starting around early 2018, serial ADA plaintiffs have filed significantly more lawsuits against hotels regarding this issue.

In addition to the many physical accessibility requirements at places of lodging (hotels), such as accessible parking and accessible guest rooms, the ADA also requires places of lodging to take certain actions during the reservations process to help individuals with disabilities obtain an accessible guest room.  Specifically, places of lodging are required to do the following:

  • Ensure individuals can reserve accessible guest rooms in the same manner and time as other guests;
  • Provide descriptions of accessible features of the hotel and guest rooms as part of any reservations process (such as website booking);
  • Ensure that the hotel’s accessible guest rooms are held for individuals with disabilities and not rented out to those not requesting an accessible room (unless all non-disabled rooms have been booked); and
  • Once reserved, ensure that the accessible guest room is hard booked and not rented to anyone else.

These requirements derive from 28 C.F.R. § 36.302(e)(1), which is provided in full below.

Continue ›

See Part 1 – What you need to know about how we got here
See Part 2 – Rights to due process and standing requirements

This article was first published by Law360® Expert Analysis, © 2019 Portfolio Media Group Inc. and is reprinted with permission.

ADA website litigation against the hospitality industry involves more than whether a website is accessible using screen reading software. The DOJ speaks directly to the lodging industry in 28 CFR § 36.302(e) of the ADA’s Title III Regulation, stating that reservations made by places of lodging shall modify policies, practices or procedures to ensure that individuals with disabilities can make reservations in the same manner as individuals who do not need accessible rooms; that hotels must identify and describe their accessible features in public spaces and guest rooms in enough detail to permit individuals with disabilities to assess whether their needs will be met; that hotels must hold accessible guest rooms for use by individuals with disabilities until all such rooms have been rented; and must guarantee the specific accessible guest room reserved through its reservations service is held for the reserving customer.

ADA plaintiffs law firms are quite familiar with the details of this section of Title III, and ADA website lawsuits filed against hotels often include allegations that hotels do not accurately identify the hotel’s accessible features. Our clients are experiencing an explosion of such litigation by increasing numbers of law firms.

Copycat website ADA litigation is exploding

An interesting “phenomenon” or pattern is taking place in the realm of ADA cyberaccessibility litigation: copycat website litigation filed against the same hotel by different law firms around the country, alleging the same website ADA violations as the original lawsuit.  Curiously, this tactic is becoming more common in California, New York, Florida, Arizona and elsewhere. Are these copycat lawsuits coincidental? Are they the result of independent investigation? Or are the plaintiffs or their counsel sharing defendant lists? Although it is currently unclear how or why hotel defendants are confronted with multiple lawsuits by different plaintiffs over the same websites, it appears to be a growing trend. Continue ›

See Part 1 – What you need to know about how we got here
See Part 3 – Website litigation specific to hotels

This article was first published by Law360® Expert Analysis, © 2019 Portfolio Media Group Inc. and is reprinted with permission. 

The Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit: Rights to due process

On October 7, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Domino’s Pizza LLC, sending Domino’s back to the trial court to determine if it can be held liable under the ADA for website accessibility. The high Court’s refusal to accept certiorari in this case was a disappointment to the hospitality industry and others. What happened?

In 2017, a federal district judge dismissed the website accessibility suit filed against Domino’s by a prolific ADA plaintiff (Robles v Domino’s Pizza LLC) on grounds that the failure of the DOJ to issue clear guidelines for website accessibility standards violated Domino’s constitutional right to due process. It appears that the DOJ was unaware of the lawsuit or that Domino’s filed a dispositive motion in the case, otherwise it likely would have intervened or filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in opposition to the motion. Domino’s convinced the court that the DOJ had inconsistently applied the WCAG criteria in settlements, Consent Decrees and litigation. Domino’s convinced the court that such inconsistent application left businesses guessing which criteria to follow when developing their websites – the due process violation.

However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision and on January 15, 2019, determined that the ADA applies to Domino’s website, writing in its Opinion that: “Finally, the lack of specific regulations, not yet promulgated by the Department of Justice, did not eliminate Domino’s statutory duty.”

Now that the Supreme Court has declined to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the case returns to the District Court to be tried on its merits. Whether that will happen is yet to be seen – it’s possible the case will be settled soon after remand. Continue ›

See Part 2 – Rights to due process and standing requirements
See Part 3 – Website reservations: ADA litigation specific to hotels

This article was first published by Law360® Expert Analysis, © 2019 Portfolio Media Group Inc., and is reprinted with permission.

Part 1 – What you need to know about how we got here

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted by Congress in July 1990, the Internet was in its infancy and few, if any, considered its applicability to cyberspace. But in 2006, a California federal judge ruled that the ADA applied not just to brick and mortar establishments, but to websites: National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp brought the ADA into the digital age. Application of the ADA to mobile apps would follow nearly a decade later.

In October of this year, thirteen years after Target, the U.S. Supreme Court’s declination to hear an appeal by Domino’s Pizza LLC to determine if it can be liable under the ADA for website accessibility, was a blow felt throughout the hospitality industry and others, which hoped to gain clarity on accessible website standards under the ADA. (See Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC.)

Following Ninth Circuit rulings, the decision reaffirms the principle that companies whose Internet activities are related to their brick and mortar stores may be held liable for violating the ADA even though the Department of Justice (DOJ) has yet to issue express website guidelines.

What’s going on?

Since Target, thousands of businesses – including hotels and restaurants – have been the subject of lawsuits claiming violations of Title III under the ADA because their websites and mobile applications are inaccessible to individuals who are blind and sight impaired and use screen reading software. Continue ›

When will businesses get clear direction on ADA website compliance?

On October 7, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Domino’s Pizza LLC, sending Domino’s back to the trial court to determine if it can be sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by a blind customer who alleged Domino’s website and mobile application were not accessible to people who are blind or sight impaired and use the website and mobile app with standard screen reading capabilities.

The high court’s refusal to accept certiorari in this case was a blow felt not only by Domino’s – but throughout the business community, which hoped to gain clarity on accessible website standards under the ADA.

In September 2016, we published an alert that a group of plaintiff’s ADA lawyers had threatened a number of businesses – including hotels – with litigation claiming their websites failed to comply with “ADA Guidelines.”  (Read ADA Compliance & Defense Lawyer: ADA Website Accessibility Lawsuits Escalate.) These lawsuits have since been filed with greater frequency.

Since then, a number of threats have turned into lawsuits seeking injunctive relief (website accessibility), a multiple of $4,000 minimum statutory damages under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (per visit to the website or from being deterred from visiting the website), attorneys’ fees and litigation costs.

Years ago, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) adopted rules requiring all federal agency websites to conform to the WCAG 2.0 A and AA Success Criteria as a means of providing accessible websites to persons who are blind, low vision, color blind or who suffer cognitive disabilities. In 2010, the DOJ issued a Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) stating that it intended to adopt formal ADA Guidelines for state and local government agencies to meet when designing websites. The DOJ intended to adopt the WCAG 2.0 A and AA Success Criteria for state and local government websites.  Justice then announced that it intended to adopt these same basic standards for private businesses’ websites.  But the DOJ withdrew its NOPR and has yet to issue final rules regarding web access standards for state and local agencies or private businesses.

ADA website lawsuit violates due process

Last week, in what is a ground breaking decision of particular importance to the hospitality industry, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California threw out a serial plaintiff’s lawsuit which alleged that Domino’s Pizza’s website violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and related California anti-discrimination laws by not conforming to the WCAG 2.0 A and AA Success Criteria. Continue ›

Is your website accessible to the blind and vision impaired?

A version of this article was published by the California Bankers Association.

How would you react if you received a letter from a law firm alleging that your company’s website is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it discriminates against persons who are visually disabled?

If your reaction is to take it seriously, you would be correct.

How would you react if you discovered a near-identical letter was sent to hundreds of other hotels, restaurants and other businesses – by the same law firm?

If your reaction is that you received a cookie-cutter letter by a plaintiff firm that is using a dragnet to identify possible defendants for lawsuits, you would also be correct.

How would you respond to the demand that you bring your website into compliance with international standards for web accessibility?

If you respond by picking up the phone to call experienced ADA legal counsel, you will be saving time and money.

What it’s all about

In January 2016, the law firm Carlson Lynch Sweet & Kilpela (CLSK) sent hundreds of near-identical form letters to national hotels, restaurants, financial institutions and other businesses, contending that the Department of Justice (DOJ) – the federal agency responsible for adopting ADA Standards – requires businesses to make their websites compliant with the ADA. (Note here that the DOJ has not formally adopted any specific website accessibility guidelines.)

Continue ›

Soon businesses with an online presence will be required to make their websites accessible to persons with disabilities or face litigation in state and federal court. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) already requires businesses with a physical presence to comply with exacting and numerous standards (e.g., door width, counter height, sidewalk slope, etc.)  The Department of Justice will soon expand these standards to include strict requirements for website accessibility. Here are five essential facts for any business with a website:

  • Some courts have interpreted the ADA as requiring web accessibility today. (g. National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp., (ND CA 2006) 452 F. Supp. 2d 946).  Courts are divided on whether companies with an exclusively online presence must make their websites accessible.  Earlier this year, a Vermont District Court ruled that Scribd, a California-based digital library that operates reading subscriptions on its website and mobile apps, was required to comply with Title III of the ADA by making its website and mobile apps accessible to blind subscribers.  National Federation for the Blind v. Scribd, 2015 WL 1263336 (D. Vt. March 19, 2015).  More recently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cullen v. Netflix, Inc., Case No. 5:11-cv-01199-EJD (2015) affirmed its prior ruling that online-based retailers without retail facilities do not have to make their websites accessible to blind customers under the current standards of the ADA. Courts are currently resolving differences while awaiting further DOJ action. 
  • Plaintiff-side law firms are sending complaint letters to businesses complaining of online discrimination and demanding payments of approximately $25,000. 
Posted in:
Published on:
Updated:

Since at least 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has been advocating standardized website development and content to promote access to blind and low vision internet users.  In 2013, the DOJ withdrew its proposed Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) which would have established standardized internet protocols by adopting the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

In 2006, we reported on the landmark case National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation, regarding “cyber accessibility” (a term we coined). Target was the first case in which any court ruled that the ADA applied to a retail website. With limited exception, the few courts that had addressed the subject uniformly held that the ADA only applied to brick and mortar architectural barriers, not to internet retail channels (Access Now, Inc. v. Southwest Airlines.)

Target argued that it complied with the ADA because its retail stores were fully compliant and that its website channel was not covered by the ADA standards.  The Court disagreed.  Plaintiffs’ class certification motion was granted.  Target paid a hefty sum and implemented WCAG standards to make its website accessible to blind and low vision customers.  The Target decision was followed with Rendon v. Valleycrest Productions Ltd.  Since Target, the DOJ and other agencies have imposed accessibility requirements for web content and services in Consent Decrees and Settlement Agreements with such industry leaders as Amazon.com, Netflix, H&R Block, Hilton International and others.

Website standards are imminent

The DOJ’s issuance of website standards is not a matter of “if”, but “when.” The regulations will “establish requirements for making goods, services, facilities, privileges, accommodations, or advantages” offered by state and local government agencies and businesses via the Internet, “specifically at sites on the World Wide Web,” accessible to persons with disabilities.
On November 25, 2014, the DOJ Civil Rights Division issued its Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making entitled “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability: Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities and Public Accommodations.”  These revised regulations, when adopted, will implement web site development standards which the DOJ has been working on for nearly a decade.

Continue ›