Once again – as in past Memorial Day editions – I’m firing up the grill with hundred dollar bills in honor of the money wasted on lawyers, who are the only ones who really benefit from most ADA and FHA litigation. There are, however, some cases dealing addressing important substantive issues, and few in which Courts seem ready to turn the ADA and FHA into laws to help people instead of laws to make lawyers rich. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - serial litigation, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Web Access, ADA Website Accessibility Tags: ADA defense, American University, digital accessibility, mobile app accessibility, website accessibility, website ADA defense
On October 7-8 I’ll be joining Jason Taylor of Usablenet and Jeremy Horlick of ADA Site Compliance at American University’s Digital Accessibility Legal Summit in a panel discussion of accessibility overlays, widgets and plug-ins titled “The Great Accessibility Overlays Battle.” You can find the complete program at www.accessibility.legal. As you know, the use of widgets and overlays has generated some controversy, with makers of this software claiming they can create an accessible website and every credible consultant claiming they cannot. You can read my blogs about his subject at Is there a silver bullet for ADA website accessibility? Sorry, but the answer is no. and Thanks for the shout-out Lainey – a website plug-in followup. Those looking for an interesting technical analysis of the differences between various products will find one by Jason Taylor at https://blog.usablenet.com/inclusive-accessibility-crushes-widgets-and-overlays. Any attorney with clients who own a website – and that should be most of us – will find the entire Summit usefuls. The need for digital accessibility and the risk when it is absent colors every kind of business and consumer transaction, so keeping up to date is critical.
By Richard Hunt in ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, Internet Accessibility Tags: ADA defense, Advocacy for Justice, FHA Defense, J. Kevin Benjamin, Jerome Ramsaran, Legal Justice Advocates, Portell Law Group, Pursuit of Respect
I had forgotten that this classic song was from Loggins & Messina until I looked it up after getting an old demand letter packaged by a new firm. I have blogged before about Legal Justice Advocates, a front for a group of attorneys who sent hundreds of demand letters making unsustainable claims about website accessibility under the Fair Housing Act.¹ Their business was taken over by the Portell Law Group² when the original members of LJA dropped out of sight and one of them, Ilya Torchinsky, lost his license to practice. Now another member of the group, Jerome Ramsaran, has incorporated a new supposed disability rights group, Pursuit of Respect, Inc., which is pursuing the old business of making demands on website owners in different real estate related businesses. I know this because I was recently provided a demand letter sent by a lawyer in Chicago who also practices in Florida, the original home of Legal Justice Advocates. J. Kevin Benjamin is the lawyer sending demands on behalf of Pursuit of Respect, Inc. Unlike the claims from Legal Justice Advocates and the Portell Law Group Benjamin’s claims include ADA allegations, and unlike the LJA and Portell Claims the letters from Benjamin give the recipient fourteen days to correct the supposed website violations before there is a threat of a money demand. Of course the demands do not include any details about the supposed problems, and fourteen days is an impossible period for website remediation under the best circumstances. I expect the soft touch is intended to get an equally soft response that lets Benjamin solicit some kind of payment, and once the fourteen days are up there will probably be a stronger money demand. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Web Access, ADA Website Accessibility Tags: ADA and the internet, ADA defense, website accessibility, Winn-Dixie
On April 7 the Eleventh Circuit issued what is likely to be among the most important ADA decisions in the last twenty years. (6) In Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., 2021 WL 1289906 (11th Cir. Apr. 7, 2021) the Eleventh Circuit not only rejected the idea that Title III of the ADA covers websites as public accommodations, it also adopted a very limited view of the circumstances in which websites would be required to be accessible even when associated with a physical place of business. The impact on regional businesses in the Eleventh Circuit will be immediate – almost all ADA website lawsuits brought in the Eleventh Circuit are probably subject to dismissal unless carefully repled. More important is the prospect of an application of writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. Unlike the Robles v Dominos case¹ Gil v. Winn-Dixie deals directly with the question of the ADA’s scope, making it an appropriate vehicle for Supreme Court review. There is finally a chance that we will have a definitive answer about the extent to which websites are subject to ADA accessibility requirements.
The Court dealt with the first issue before it; that is, are websites places of public accommodation, in the expected way. Because Title III gives only physical places of business as examples of public accommodations the Court found that a public accommodation is necessarily a physical place.² Websites are not physical places and are therefore not directly subject to the ADA’s accessibility requirements.
The next step in Court’s decision takes on the thornier issue of just what constitutes the “goods, services, privileges or advantages” of a public accommodation. The Court’s discussion is tangled because it tries to fit the problem into its earlier cases discussing “intangible barriers” and the question of what auxiliary aids and service might be required. When you look past this chaff the approach is clear: for the 11th Circuit the “goods, services, privileges and advantages” of a public accommodation are those offered at its physical place of business. Just because a website is created by or associated with a public accommodation does not make it a service of that public accommodation. It may be, as in the case of Winn-Dixie’s website, simply an alternative means of offering services already offered in the store. Because the website is not a service in and of itself there is no requirement that it be accessible.
This leads to the consideration of auxiliary aids and services, a particularly confused area of analysis when it comes to websites. It is clear from the language of the ADA that auxiliary aids and services are something that must be provided when necessary to avoid exclusion of the disabled. Screen readers and other assistive technologies are typical auxiliary aids and services, but in the context of a website they are not something provided by the public accommodation; they are something brought to the public accommodation or to its website by the disabled user. Thus, the auxiliary aids and services requirement in the ADA really cannot apply to website accessibility issues unless the website itself is treated as an auxiliary aid or service that must be provided in order to give those with disabilities equal access. The Court does not address this possibility, but would certainly reject it because, as it points it out, all the goods and services at Winn-Dixie were already available to those with disabilities at the physical stores.
This doesn’t mean websites associated with a physical place of business will never have to be accessible in the 11th Circuit. The Court’s discussion of the 9th Circuit’s decision in Robles v. Domino’s Pizza (4) suggests that an e-commerce website through which customers could purchase the same goods available in the physical store might be subject to an accessibility requirement. The logic of the distinction drawn by the Court isn’t clear though. The Court rejects the idea that a somewhat more convenient online re-fill process created a privilege that had to be equally accessible to those with disabilities, so taking the additional step of allowing on-line payment doesn’t seem to change the fact that a buyer is just doing on-line what they could do in the store. The very early decision in Access Now, Inc. v Southwest Airlines, Inc. rejected the idea that just because it was harder to do something in a physical store did not mean that an easier alternative had to be accessible.³
The decision also leaves open the possibility that an inaccessible website might be an intangible barrier to use of the goods and services of a store. If prescriptions could only be refilled online it seems clear the Court would find the inaccessibility of the website made it an intangible barrier to access to the goods and services of the store itself.
The long dissent makes it clear that what is really at stake in Winn-Dixie is the majority’s limited definition of the “goods, services privileges and advantages” of a public accommodation. For the majority the Winn-Dixie pharmacy is just in the business of selling drugs and refilling prescriptions. If a disabled customer can buy drugs and get their prescription refilled at the store there has been no denial of the full and equal enjoyment of the public accommodation even if other customers can do the same thing in a more convenient way online. After all, the majority points out, it is never possible to give those with disabilities a truly equal experience. Gil’s ability to do business at Winn-Dixie did not change just because the website became available as a convenience to other customers. For the dissent, on the other hand, any convenience offered to non-disabled customers must be offered to disabled customers as well even if the convenience is not fundamental to the acquisition of goods and services offered by the business. The majority is focused on meaningful access to goods and services; the dissent is focused on achieving equality in the entire range of interactions between customers and public accommodations.
The difference in views is not, I think, one that can be resolved by simply appealing to the text of the ADA or its regulations. The ADA’s requirements are premised on compromise; if true equality is impossible, how much money has to be spent getting close to true equality. The 11th Circuit would draw the line at enough money so those with disabilities can buy what is being sold. The dissent would require more equality at some additional cost, though it isn’t clear how much. This line drawing is implicit in the ADA, but that doesn’t make it easy to do. When the Winn-Dixie case was filed in 2016 online prescription refills may have looked like nothing but a slightly more convenient way to do what customers were already doing. During 2020, when shopping in person was far more difficult and dangerous, online prescription refills began to look like something close to a fundamental need. The more the general public uses on-line services of any kind the less likely it is that even physical places of public accommodation will devote the same resources to serving their customers any other way. That in turn makes it harder to claim services offered through the internet are merely an alternative to a traditional trip to the store. The difficulty in drawing the line between convenience and necessity can be seen in the Court’s discussion of Robles v. Dominos. Why is the ability to pay online more like a necessity than the ability to order online and pay in the store, or more like a service that should be provided equally to all? The Eleventh Circuit doesn’t answer that question or many similar questions that could arise in defining the line between a website as an intangible barrier and a website as merely an alternative means of doing something.
The best argument for the 11th Circuit’s conservative approach is that major technological and social shifts should be addressed explicitly by amendments to the ADA rather than being decided by hundreds of different federal judges in thousands of different specific fact situations. This could happen as the effort to amend the ADA to explicitly cover websites has started anew. (5) In the meantime, businesses in the 11th Circuit can breathe a sigh of relief and businesses everywhere can hope the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to better define just what the ADA requires for business websites.
By Richard Hunt in ADA, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - Hotels, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Mootness, ADA Web Access, FHA, FHA Reasonable Accommodation, Hotels, Internet Accessibility, Landlord-tenant, Policies and Procedures FHA ADA Tags: ADA and Uber, ADA defense, ADA hotel litigation, ADA tester standing, ADA vexatious litigation, ADA Website Litigation, ASL interpreters, FHA Defense, FHA disability discrimination, Unruh Act supplemental jurisdiction
If foolishness were limited to one day a year this blog would be well overdue, but a glance at the news – legal, political or other, shows that every day in April can be April fools day, so I make no apologies for the delay in getting this out.
The difference between accommodation and modification under the ADA and FHA
Any discussion of S.W. Fair Hous. Council v. WG Chandler Villas SH LLC, 2021 WL 1087200 (D. Ariz. Mar. 22, 2021) must begin with a vocabulary note. The thing called “modification” under the ADA is called “accommodation” under the FHA and the thing called “modification” under the FHA doesn’t really exist under Title III of the ADA. The vocabulary matters because under the FHA a “modification” is a change to a physical feature that the tenant must pay for while an “accommodation” is a change in policy that the landlord must pay for on the theory that the costs will usually be nominal. In WG Chandler Villas the plaintiff, a fair housing organization that was testing local apartment communities for their responsiveness to the needs of the deaf, asserted that installation of a flashing doorbell was an accommodation rather than a modification, thus making the cost the landlord’s responsibility. The Court held that how to characterize such a request depended on what kinds of services the landlord already provided:
The Court finds that a flashing doorbell is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA—not merely a modification—in the context of Defendant’s housing facility, because one of the services that Defendant provides residents is safety checks.
Those safety checks included ringing the doorbell to see if the resident responded. Since deaf residents would not benefit from that safety check if they didn’t know the doorbell was being rung the addition of the flashing doorbell was better characterized as a change in policy about safety checks rather than a physical modification in the form of a new doorbell. This reasoning could apply to an array of services that any apartment complex might provide. If reserved parking is a service, for example, then a reserved accessible parking space would be an accommodation despite the physical changes (including using up an entire extra parking space) and their cost.² More