It seems that CUNA, the Credit Union National Association has been slaying the dragon of serial website accessibility litigation.* In fact, the filing of a CUNA brief recently caused the plaintiff to just give up, dismissing the case voluntarily rather than face another unfavorable decision.** Looking at why CUNA has succeeded when the history of website litigation is mostly a story of defense failures points to an important rejection of standing based on dignitary harm, a rejection that may give defendants in non-credit union cases a useful argument of their own. More
ADA – drive-by litigation
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Web Access Tags: "drive-by" ADA lawsuits, ADA, ADA cheap standing, ADA standing, serial ADA filers
Cases decided in the last few weeks are mostly good for business, not because they fail to enforce the ADA, but because they refuse to let dubious serial filer claims get beyond the initial pleading stage. Here’s the lineup.
Standing and cheap standing
Cheryl Thurston v. FCA US LLC, et al., EDCV172183JFWSPX, 2018 WL 700939, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 26, 2018) is a district court decision that in some ways anticipates the 5th Circuit decisions we blogged about earlier this week. It is a web accessibility case and could be crucial in the effort to stop abusive serial litigation against websites. The plaintiff alleged in general terms that she had tried to use the defendant’s website to find a dealer and that she found barriers to access. She did not allege that she was unable to find a dealer, and for the Court this meant she had failed to allege an injury. This may seem obvious, but courts in the Ninth Circuit have a long history of holding that mere exposure to an inaccessible public accommodation is sufficient to state a claim under the ADA based on the notion that it makes the plaintiff feel bad to see ADA violations. Rejecting that argument and requiring at least an allegation of real injury would be a giant step forward for getting rid of abusive litigation. More
Just in time for Valentine’s day the Fifth Circuit has definitively confirmed what should never have been an issue in the first place; that is, an ADA plaintiff does not have standing without suffering a real injury. The first decision, Deutsch v. Travis County Shoe Hosp., Inc., 16-51431, 2018 WL 704131 (5th Cir. Feb. 2, 2018) was not designated for publication, but discusses standing at length. Deutsch v. Annis Enterprises, Inc., 17-50231, 2018 WL 776073 (5th Cir. Feb. 8, 2018) will be officially published. It contains a similar discussion of standing.
Both cases are interesting because the Fifth Circuit, referring back to language from its decision in Frame v. City of Arlington, 657 F.3d 215 (5th Cir. 2011) (en banc), discusses whether the alleged ADA violations would “negatively affect” Deutsch’s “day-to-day life.” In Annis Enterprises the Court explains part of its earlier decision in Frame as follows:
Thus, the plaintiffs had established standing because they had “alleged in detail how specific inaccessible sidewalks negatively affect their day-to-day lives by forcing them to take longer and more dangerous routes to their destinations.”
2018 WL 776073, at *3, quoting Frame. Applying this standard to Deutsch, it then wrote: “unlike the Frame plaintiffs, Deutsch has not shown how the supposed ADA violations at Color at Dawn will “negatively affect [his] day-to-day li[fe].” Id.
The Travis County Shoe Hospital case quotes the same language from Frame, then applies it to Deutsch with these words:
In contrast, Deutsch has not provided a description of any concrete plans to return to Travis County Shoe, and he also has not shown how the alleged ADA violations negatively affect his day-to-day life. Deutsch testified at the hearing that he had not been to Travis County Shoe before the day he alleges he encountered the ADA violations. Deutsch further testified that he had not returned to the business since that day. He “perhaps” had an intention of returning to the business but had no specific intention of doing so.
Based on evidence in the record, Deutsch has visited Travis County Shoe one time. Not only has he not returned to the business, he has not expressed an intent to do so even if any alleged barrier to his access is removed. In addition, unlike the plaintiffs in Frame, Deutsch has not shown how the alleged violations negatively affect his day-to-day activities. See id.
I’ve quoted Travis County Shoe at length because it appears the Fifth Circuit is requiring two different things for ADA standing. One is an intent to return. The other is a showing that the alleged ADA violations would negatively affect the plaintiff’s day-to-day activities. This makes perfect sense, for an ADA violation can scarcely injure a person who was simply out looking for violations; however, there is a large body of case law, mostly in the Ninth Circuit, holding that a disabled person suffers an injury by merely seeing an ADA violation. See, e.g., Chapman v. Pier 1 Imports (U.S.) Inc., 631 F.3d 939, 944 (9th Cir. 2011). This kind of cheap standing* is what drives the ADA litigation machine, which depends on plaintiffs like Deutsch who simply drive around looking for ADA violations and then file suit in the hope of a quick settlement. This kind of plaintiff will never be able to honestly allege a negative affect on day-to-day activities from a violation seen only once while looking for violations.
The Fifth Circuit seems to have done what other courts should have done long ago; require that ADA plaintiffs prove a concrete injury to establish standing. That single requirement would stem the tide of ADA litigation and end the driving for dollars industry that has grown up based on cheap standing and quick settlements.
*See our earlier blog ““Cheap standing” under the ADA: district courts push back.“
“Tester standing” is an area of ADA litigation that seems to create a good deal of confusion, so it is worthwhile to take a look at the 4th Circuit’s recent decision in Nanni v. Aberdeen Marketplace, Inc., 2017 WL 6521299 (4th Cir. Dec. 21, 2017). As is often the case, the decision illuminates the requirements for standing but contains the seeds of future confusion.
The Fourth Circuit’s decision concerned a motion to dismiss made at the very beginning of a lawsuit, but it is easier to understand the position of a tester under the ADA by starting at the end of lawsuit – the trial. That is when, as the saying goes, the truth don’t lie.
To prevail in an ADA case based on architectural barriers the plaintiff must prove that he was injured by an ADA violation before he filed suit and that he will likely be injured in the future unless that violation is remediated. Let us suppose that an individual like Mr. Nanni testifies that he went to a mall or store but had some difficulty getting out of his car because the parking space was not properly constructed. He then testifies that he is likely to go back in the future, and if the space is still not corrected he will have the same problem. Perfect. Injury before suit, injury in the future, he has standing.
Now let us suppose the plaintiff admits he went to the mall as a tester looking for ADA violations. He also admits that he has filed many lawsuits against businesses like the mall that are not close to his home. Given a long list of businesses he sued he can’t recall when if ever he returned to any of them. Nonetheless he claims that he will return to the defendants’ business in the future and will therefore be harmed by any barriers to access that are not fixed. The judge looks him in the eye and decides he is lying. This is what happens at trial – the judge or a jury decides who is lying and who is telling the truth. Because the judge doesn’t believes he will return the judge also thinks there is no likelihood of future injury. The plaintiff loses no matter how real the ADA violations might have been because without that future injury he does not have standing to ask for injunctive relief.
Now let’s wind back the clock to the beginning of the lawsuit. Same plaintiff, same history of lawsuits, but this time the judge is not listening to testimony at trial but instead reading the complaint. It says all the same things the plaintiff intends to say at trial. The judge throws the case out, saying that the complaint isn’t sufficiently persuasive to satisfy the requirements of Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as interpreted in the Supreme Court’s decisions in Iqbal and Twombly.* That’s the case that went to the Fourth Circuit, which said two uncontroversial things:
- Being a tester does not disqualify a plaintiff from filing a lawsuit because you can be a tester and still be injured by an ADA violation. The plaintiff may have been looking for ADA violations, but he still couldn’t get out of his car, and that is precisely the kind of injury the ADA was intended to prevent.
- Being a tester didn’t mean the plaintiff did not intend to return. He said in the complaint that he intended to return and at the beginning of the case, before the judge looks the plaintiff in the eye and hears his testimony, the judge has to assume that what the complaint says is true.
The first point is one that is often mis-stated, with plaintiffs and others saying that “testers have standing.” The drive-by litigation boom has been fueled by the notion that claiming to be a tester and seeing a possible violation is sufficient, but there is no rational theory of standing that would allow this. Testers don’t have standing because they are testers, they have standing because they have been injured.
The second point is that while being a tester is not sufficient, but it also doesn’t disqualify the plaintiff. This is something the district court got right and it would have been helpful for the Fourth Circuit to confirm it.
The real controversy about testers is usually not whether there is a past injury, but whether there is going to be a future injury. What the district court said, in essence, was that with Nanni’s litigation history he would have to plead a lot of details to make a plausible case that he would return. The Fourth Circuit rejected this, observing that because being a tester did not disqualify a plaintiff there was no reason to think testers had an extraordinary obligation to provide details at the beginning of the case. This is not by any means a radical view.
Then, unfortunately, the Fourth Circuit says this: “At bottom, we reject the proposition that Nanni’s motivations in pursuing his ADA claim against Aberdeen deprive him of standing to sue in these proceedings.” 2017 WL 6521299, at *8. This is at best only half true. A plaintiff’s motives can deprive him of standing if, based on those motives, the court finds after a trial that there was no intent to return. Motives are important evidence about future behavior and are therefore relevant. What the Fourth Circuit should have said, and perhaps meant to say, is that motive does not necessarily deprive a plaintiff of standing. At the pleading stage a tester has no higher pleading obligation than any other plaintiff, but at trial a tester may have some explaining to do. It’s an important difference, and one that needs to be more clearly recognized.
* See our earlier blog “Iqbal, Twombly and the ADA”
It would be well worthwhile for any reader of this blog or our previous blog on internet accessibility cases to check the latest blog at williamgoren.com, which discusses the same issues from a different perspective.
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Attorney's Fees, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Litigation Procedure, ADA Mootness
Access Now, Inc. v. Otter Products, LLC, 2017 WL 6003051 (D. Mass. Dec. 4, 2017) points out one of the many problems created by the thoughtless application of the ADA to websites – the potential for forum shopping. Massachusetts is one of the most favorable venues for ADA website cases because its federal courts have held that all websites are subject to the ADA regardless of their connection to a physical place of business. In Otter Products the plaintiff lived in Massachusetts and had no difficulty persuading the Court that it could exercise jurisdiction over the defendant based on product sales over the internet to Massachusetts residents. The possibility of being sued in almost any state comes with doing business nationwide. The problem with ADA lawsuits is that while we have a single federal law there is no single federal standard for determining which websites must be accessible or what accessibility means. This means plaintiff’s law firms will be choosing where to file suit based on an agenda that may bear little or no relationship either to real accessibility or what Congress intended. Businesses with nationwide sales may as well accept that every website must be accessible (because that is what the most liberal courts have held) and that website accessibility will mean whatever they lack (because that is the allegation needed to get past a motion to dismiss). More