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 was disbarred. Now another member of the group, Jerome Ramsaran, has created a new supposed disability rights group, Pursuit of Respect, Inc., to pursue 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
By Richard Hunt in ADA, ADA - serial litigation, ADA Point of Sale, ADA Public Accommodation, Design Build Discrimination, Public Facilities Tags: ADA defense, COVID-19, sneeze guard, Square One Architecture, wheelchair access
I’ve gotten two emails from John Garra at Square One Architecture¹ with papers on different aspects of physical accessibility and Covid-19 that frankly had not occurred to me. The first dealt with sneeze guards that have been put up at most sales counters may, and frequently do infringe on the space required for those with disabilities to access the counter. The second concerned the signs being used to space out folks waiting in line or to block access to seating. These are not readable by the blind, who therefore can’t tell where seating or standing is appropriate. I think these are the first non-mask related Covid-19 item I’ve seen.
Sales counters are a frequent source of ADA complaints and litigation, usually because they are not low enough, not wide enough, or cluttered with point-of-sale displays. Adding a sneeze guard that isn’t carefully designed can easily create problems that didn’t exist before. Garra also points out that the reason sales counters have a maximum height is that wheelchair users are sitting at a height lower than almost all standing users. That means the portion of a sneeze guard that is open for passing receipts or goods may be a just the face level of a wheelchair user, making the sneeze guard less effective or ineffective.
I’ll share any additional insights that Garra sends me, but once you begin looking at public spaces in terms of accessibility it isn’t hard to imagine other unintended consequences of Covid-19 protection. Restaurants that have eliminated tables in order to create greater social distance might easily have eliminated accessible seating without thinking about why some tables are differently configured. Sneeze guards aren’t just a problem at counters. The picture above shows a sneeze guard that makes a booth inaccessible for a person in a wheelchair. The focus on masks as a problematic requirement for those with breathing disabilities may cause us to overlook the problem presented for deaf individuals who rely on lip reading when a clerk or server is wearing a mask.
There are, as Garra points out, many resources on accessibility available online from the U.S. Access Board,² the federal agency with general responsibility for accessibility standards. I would add this suggestion for businesses that want to both avoid litigation and better serve customers with disabilities. Just take a few minutes to walk through your business imagining you are in a wheelchair and see what barriers might exist because of Covid-19 precautions or for any other cause. Think as well about the experience of a blind customer or a deaf customer. The technical standards can be daunting, but in most cases the problems are easy to identify and understand with a little imagination.
¹You can contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want more information. His website is Square One Architecture.
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - Hotels, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Attorney's Fees, ADA FHA General, ADA FHA Litigation General, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Mootness, ADA Web Access, ADA Website Accessibility Tags: ADA default judgment, ADA defense, FHA Defense, hotel website, Informational injury, mootness, serial litigation, Strojnik, supplemental jurisdiction, tester standing
Madeira was traditionally aged in barrels that crossed the equator twice, the heat and time fortifying and sweetening the wine. Like a cask of Madeira the sun will cross the equatorial plane of the earth in a few days, but you won’t have to wait for the next crossing in the fall for a quick hits blog. Here’s the news.
What if someday never comes?
The classic Creedence Clearwater Revival song asks what will have if someday never comes. The Eighth Circuit had the same question in Smith v. Golden China of Red Wing, Inc., 987 F.3d 1205, 1209 (8th Cir. 2021). Following its earlier decisions involving the same lawyers and plaintiff the Eighth Circuit had little trouble concluding that the plaintiff, who visited the defendant only as a “tester” driven by his attorney and whose return would be as directed by his attorney did not have sufficiently concrete plans to return for there to be a likely future injury that would support standing for injunctive relief. Since the ADA only provides for injunctive relief that was fatal to this claim as it had been to others in the past. The Eighth Circuit has seen dozens, rather than tens of thousands, of ADA lawsuits because the Court takes Article III standing seriously. If the Ninth Circuit ever does the same my blogs will start getting much shorter. More