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
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Mootness, ADA Policies, ADA Web Access, FHA Emotional Support Animals
Black Friday is approaching. In honor of the annual sales we’ve collected a bevy of cases containing helpful lessons for any business subject to the ADA or Fair Housing Act.
Siler v. Abbott House, Inc., 2017 WL 5494989 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 16, 2017) teaches a simple lesson for HOA’s: call your lawyer before you do anything concerning a disabled tenant or resident. In this case the prospective tenant was, it seems clear, treated very badly by a condominium home owners association. The conduct went from merely improper (questions about her obvious disability and need for personal assistants) to just spiteful (moving an access button to make sure she couldn’t reach it). Despite a later letter from the HOA’s lawyer apologizing and trying smooth things over the Court refused to dismiss the tenant’s claims for damages and attorneys’ fees. This isn’t a final victory for the plaintiff, but it guarantees the HOA will spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees if it doesn’t settle. Every HOA needs a clear set of policies regarded disabled tenants, and if those policies don’t exist, the Board should not act without first calling a lawyer. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Litigation Procedure, ADA Mootness Tags: Burningham v TVI, Gomez v Empower U, HB 1463, HB 3765, HB727
A number of states have passed laws intended to stop abusive ADA lawsuits, including most recently Florida and Texas.* As we’ve reported several times recently some individual federal judges are taking their own steps to stem serial litigation without diminishing the rights of the disabled. All these efforts attack the problem at the wrong end. Serial ADA lawsuits are a just a symptom of a deeper problem – a lack of ADA education and regulatory enforcement. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA Attorney's Fees, ADA Litigation Procedure, ADA Mootness Tags: ADA default judgment, ADA defense, ADA surrender
The defendant in Johnson v. Patel, 2017 WL 3953949 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 8, 2017) used an increasingly common strategy to deal with an ADA lawsuit. He gave up. Most lawyers would never recommend complete surrender as a strategy, but in the last two years we have seen a significant number of these cases from California, so it is worth asking whether allowing a default can ever be a good strategy. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Attorney's Fees, ADA Litigation Procedure, ADA Mootness Tags: accessible parking, ADA technical violations, common sense ADA, handicap parking
Strong v. Johnson et al, 2017 WL 3537746 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 27, 2017) probably won’t go down in history as a landmark ADA decision, but shows a sometimes uncommon level of common sense about the difference between technical ADA requirements and the reality of accessibility.
By the time of this decision, the defendants had remediated all of the barriers to access that gave rise to the original lawsuit. The plaintiffs, undeterred, sent their expert back out to look for more. What he found was an excessive cross-slope “at the head” of the accessible parking space and an excessive running slope at the handicapped parking sign. Both appear to constitute violations of the 2010 ADA Standards, which require that “parking spaces” have slopes of no more than about 2% and make no distinction between the different parts of the parking space.
The Court rejected these technical violations because: “Passengers do not load, unload, or transfer into or out of vehicles at the head of a parking space, and vehicular lifts do not deploy there.” What matters for accessibility is how the slope of the space affects a disabled person, not whether there is some spot that has a slightly excessive slope. The Court had a similar observation about slopes in the middle of a parking space: “While excessive slope in the center of a parking space might technically be a violation of some kind, the fact that it is in the middle of the parking space means it would be underneath any vehicle parked there.” The court does mention the slope at the sign, but the same reasoning applies. A person in a wheelchair isn’t going to run into or even scrape a sign, so the slope at the sign is irrelevant to accessibility.
This common sense matters to defendants because one of the many games experts play in this ADA cases involves what this expert seems to have done; that is, taking measurements at many locations, trying to find just one or two that will justify a complaint. Parking spaces are large enough that it is hard to make the entire space and adjacent aisle perfectly flat, so this game often yields results. Requiring the plaintiff to show not just a technical violation, but a violation that mattered for accessibility, will often be a victory for a defendant who would otherwise end up re-paving a perfectly good parking space.
The Court also rejected the idea that the slopes might affect the plaintiff as she traversed the parking lot because as a matter of fact she never crossed the lot; she just parked and got out of her van. The slopes might be a problem for someone, but they were not for her. The Court had a similar observation about the striping on the access aisle. After noting that there did not seem to be even a technical violation the Court went on to note that: “And even if this might be a barrier for someone, Plaintiffs have never said why it would be a barrier for them.” Access aisles are required to be marked so as to discourage parking, but this only matters if the plaintiff cannot load or unload because of a parked vehicle, which evidently never happened.
For those who wonder why the Plaintiffs tried so hard to keep their lawsuit alive when the owner had fixed all the problems they identified, the answer is simple. Money. When remediation makes a lawsuit moot the plaintiff’s lawyers go home empty handed, and for most lawyers there is no more horrible result than that. Our next blog – “Mootness done right” – will discuss a case demonstrating what defendants must do if they want to take advantage of the mootness defense. In the meantime, remember that in one court, at least, common sense about the real impact of technical violations matters.