On October 26, 2017, a judge dismissed 99 ADA lawsuits, ordered an in forma pauperis plaintiff  (a person without funds to pursue the cost of a lawsuit) to pay filing fees of $38,300 and authorized the defendants to file fee and sanction motions.

Surely, this plaintiff’s lawyer rues the day she answered an ad on Craigslist looking for a civil rights lawyer to file ADA litigation in her jurisdiction.

What’s going on?

A Strange Set of Circumstances

The Arizona-based organization, Litigation Management and Financial Services, Inc. (LMFS), a descendant of the notorious ADA plaintiffs’ group Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities, used Craigslist, indeed.com and other online media to find and engage disabled plaintiffs to file ADA lawsuits, and lawyers to represent them. The online advertisements resulted in hundreds of ADA lawsuits filed against businesses in New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Utah.

It is also how a disabled plaintiff and her lawyer came to file 99 ADA lawsuits in New Mexico, alleging each defendant’s business violated the ADA and related anti-discrimination laws.  According to court documents, the deal LMFS made with this plaintiff and her counsel, worked like this:

  • The plaintiff was paid $50.00 per lawsuit filed.
  • The plaintiff’s counsel received $100 per filing for serving as counsel of record for each lawsuit filed.
  • LMFS drafted all pleadings and defended any motion practice in exchange for the lion’s share of any settlements that resulted from the lawsuits.
  • LMFS also arranged for a driver to take the plaintiff to some — but apparently not all — of the businesses that were sued, for a photo-op.

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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 ›

How many judges does it take to rule that shopping center tenants
are not liable for ADA violations in common areas?

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of the California State Bar’s Real Property Law Section E-Bulletin.

Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) “to provide clear, strong consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities” in employment, public accommodations, transportation and federal, state and local government services. 42 U.S.C.§12101(b)(2). Title III of the ADA applies to public accommodations including shopping centers, theaters, arenas, restaurants, health clubs, hotels, banks, public space in office buildings, and nearly every manner of retail premises. Virtually every leased location which serves the general public and is engaged in commerce is subject to the accessibility requirements of the ADA.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (“ADAAG”) were developed in the early 1990s by the Access Board and implemented by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA. The ADAAG Standards were amended effective March 15, 2012.

The DOJ has been actively investigating national retailers for ADA compliance. In addition to voluntary compliance and federal enforcement, the ADA contemplates that private litigants will enforce ADA compliance. To that end, federal court filings demonstrate that since 2000, more than 20,000 ADA private lawsuits have been filed in the federal courts. Over 8,000 ADA lawsuits have been filed in California’s federal district courts during this time period. From September 2012 through December 2013, 627 federal cases, 2,078 state cases and 342 demand letters were submitted to the California Commission on Disability Access. See 2013 Annual Report to the California State Legislative in Compliance with Government Code Sections 8299.07(a) and 8299.08(d). The overwhelming majority of these ADA lawsuits and compliance demands involved owners and tenants of leased properties. Continue ›

The City of Brotherly Love is Showing Love to Persons with
Disabilities Under the ADA, but not to Lyft or Uber

From coast to coast, Uber and Lyft have come under increasing fire from disability rights organizations and have faced litigation because their ride share practices allegedly discriminate against persons with disabilities.  Federal lawsuits were also filed in San Francisco against Uber and Lyft .

In what appears to be the most draconian decision to date, a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge ruled on October 6, 2016 that Uber and Lyft repeatedly violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and issued an order suspending their rideshare services in the City of Brotherly Love.  The ramifications of this Order could be felt throughout the United States and Canada, which has similar civil rights laws to protect persons with disabilities.

Common Pleas Judge Linda Carpenter’s Order in Blount v. Philadelphia Parking Authority granted plaintiff’s request for an injunction prohibiting the parking authority from authorizing Uber and Lyft to operate in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Complaint alleged that Uber and Lyft systematically failed to provide vehicles which accommodate persons in wheelchairs, routinely refuse to accommodate persons who travel with service animals and charge excessive pricing for such accommodations.

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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.)

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In the latest decision against an Arizona “high frequency ADA litigant”, the United States District Court for the Central District of California ruled this week that cases like Brooke vs. Perry Family Trust, et al. have no place in Federal Court.

The plaintiff, Theresa Brooke, has filed hundreds of identical ADA lawsuits against Arizona and California hotels, including a half-dozen suits last week.  The plaintiff, a disabled resident of Arizona, contends that she was discriminated against by hundreds of hotel owners based on her disability.  She claims that these hotels violated the 2010 ADA Standards because they fail to provide permanent pool lifts at either or both the pool and spa.

In each case, Brooke alleges she called the hotels to “inquire whether the pool or Jacuzzi had a lift or other means of access for disabled persons” and the representative informed her that it did not.  Plaintiff then alleges she sent her “agent” – “an expert in ADA accessibility guidelines” – to visit the hotel, take pictures of the barriers and report back to her.  Plaintiff claims she frequently visits or intends to visit the area “in the coming months and for the indefinite future” for leisure and business.

In a rare and decisive action, a Central District Court Judge dismissed an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit filed by an Arizona disabled plaintiff who has recently filed a wave of over 70 ADA lawsuits against Southern California hotels.

The plaintiff, who claims she is confined to a wheelchair, called an Orange County hotel to book a room.  She asked the hotel representative whether the hotel pool and Jacuzzi had a pool lift or other means of access for disabled persons.  The hotel employee allegedly reported that the hotel had no pool lifts.  Thereafter, allegedly, plaintiff’s “agent,” and ADA investigator, visited the hotel, verified that there were no pool lifts, and notified the plaintiff of other ADA violations.  The plaintiff claimed that she regularly frequents the area where the hotel is located and plans to do so in the future.  If there was a pool lift, plaintiff claims, she would stay at the hotel in the future.

The plaintiff, Theresa Brooke, has filed over 70 ADA lawsuits against Southern California hotels in the past 6 weeks, “every single one of which” in boilerplate fashion alleges ADA violations based on inaccessible hotel pools and spas.  In dismissing the lawsuit, the Judge noted that the “deluge [of ADA lawsuits] is ongoing, noting plaintiff, it appears, would like to stay at every Orange County hotel that presently has an inaccessible Jacuzzi.”

Amid Growing Concerns Over the Proliferation of ADA Lawsuits, Congress and the California Legislature Address Measures to Curb ADA Abuse

Since 2004, more than 20,000 ADA lawsuits have been filed in the country’s federal courts. The number of ADA filings in state courts is unavailable, but likely runs in the thousands. Nearly one half of all ADA lawsuits were filed in California with no end in sight.

From September 2013- December 2014 (the last time period the figures are available) more than 3,000 ADA lawsuits were reported to the California Commission on Disability Access (CCDA). According to the CCDA, more than one-half – 54% – of all construction-related accessibility complaints filed in California were filed by 2 law firms (one of the lawyers is fighting a State Bar suspension stemming from ADA litigation).

According to the CCDA, 46% of all complaints were filed by 14 plaintiffs seeking quick settlements rather than correction of the alleged access violations. For years, thousands of businesses, including many small minority-owned businesses, have been targeted by a growing number of repeat plaintiffs and law firms. This increasing trend has prompted state and federal action to curb ADA abuse.

For example, these findings prompted the California Legislature to enact Civil Code Section 425.55 which is intended to curb ADA abuse. Section 425.55 defines these serial plaintiffs and their attorneys as “high-frequency litigants” and requires specific procedural and substantive conditions to be met before they can file litigation.

For all who own or operate businesses serving the general public, it is important to know about state and federal efforts requiring would-be plaintiffs and their attorneys to provide a specific pre-filing notice and opportunity to cure before they can initiate litigation and how these new laws impact you. Thus far, there are no notice and cure requirements.

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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. 
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New Resource: The ADA Compliance and Defense Guide

Download your free copy here.

The Global Hospitality Group® of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP (JMBM) is pleased to announce the latest publication in our We Wrote the Book™ series : The ADA Compliance and Defense Guide, a practical handbook for owners and operators of hotels, restaurants, golf courses, spas and sports facilities, banks and other financial institutions, retail stores, shopping centers, theaters, sports arenas, and other places of “public accommodation,” as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Co-authored by JMBM’s ADA Compliance & Defense Group Chairman, Martin H. “Marty” Orlick and JMBM’s Global Hospitality Group® Chairman, Jim Butler, the Guide reflects the complexities and ever-expanding requirements of the ADA.

About The ADA Compliance and Defense Guide, Understanding, preventing and defending claims and enforcement actions under the ADA

It will not surprise U.S. hotel owners and operators to learn that that business owners and operators in the U.S. have been subjected to more than 20,000 ADA civil lawsuits and DOJ enforcement actions since the ADA was enacted in 1991 – and most of those lawsuits were filed in the last 5 years. JMBM’s Global Hospitality Group® provides practical ADA compliance and defense advice for owners and operators. This book is an example and was written specifically to help owners and operators understand the challenges they face, encourage preventative compliance, and to prepare to defend ADA lawsuits.

Written in plain language, the Guide includes information on requirements for accessible websites, service animals, pool lifts, auxiliary aids, and the importance of developing company-wide ADA policies and procedures. Through numerous case studies, the Guide also addresses Department of Justice investigations and private plaintiff litigation.

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