How can I avoid getting sued for having a non-accessible website? With thousands of demand letters sent, and more than a hundred lawsuits filed(1), this is an important question for any business that has a consumer facing website. It is widely assumed based on past DOJ consent decrees, existing non-ADA regulations and the settlements made by private litigants that “accessible” means compliant with WCAG 2.0, success level AA.(2) Most businesses find, however, that it is a long and rocky road from today’s non-accessible website to a primary website that meets the WCAG 2.0 standard. Until the journey’s end there is no certain defense to an ADA lawsuit.(3) On top of that, it is universally agreed that a dynamic consumer facing website will inevitably fall out of compliance unless the folks who create and maintain it are constantly vigilant. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, Animals, Apartments, FHA, FHA Emotional Support Animals Tags: Fair Housing Act Emotional Support Animals, Fair Housing Act medical verification. Emotional Support Animals
Nobody likes fake Emotional Support Animal letters, but a recent DOJ consent decree should remind apartment owners that reasonable verification of a disability can spill over into unreasonable discriminatory demands.
The DOJ press release, and a link to the decree, can be found HERE. The apartment managers’ sin was requiring that an individual claiming to be disabled provide a “prescription” for the emotional support animal that included an assumption of liability by the health care provider for damage caused by the animal. You don’t have to be a mind reader to understand what management was thinking. If the health care provider is taking a risk, he or she will be more honest about the existence of a disability. HUD, DOJ, and any court would see it differently. They saw threatening a health care provider as a way of keeping those with disabilities from exercising their rights. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Web Access Tags: ADA drive-by litigation, ADA serial litigation, ADA standing, Ron Deutsch, Travis County
This is a follow up to last week’s blog, “Consolidate and Eliminate.” A magistrate judge in the Western District of Texas seems to be just that in a series of cases (more than 300) filed by Jon Deutsch in Austin, Texas. Deutsch v. Annis Enterprises, Inc., 2016 WL 5317431 (W.D. Tex. Sept. 21, 2016). I won’t provide a detailed analysis of the opinion, which should be read by every lawyer representing defendants in serial litigant cases,* but two points stand out. First, the Court conducted an evidentiary hearing, thus moving past the pleading stage, at which standing depends only on the plaintiff’s willingness to lie. Putting the plaintiff to his proof of standing early in the case is the single most important reason to consolidate and eliminate because it allows the critical fact issue to be resolved early, before the costs of litigation become absurd. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA Litigation Procedure Tags: ADA drive-by litigation, ada litigation, Arizona Attorney General, serial litigation
The intervention of the Arizona Attorney General in more than a thousand cases filed under Arizona’s ADA equivalent has been big news for some time in the ADA litigation world. (see our blog, Arizona Attorney General Intervenes to stop abusive ADA litigation) Now, according to the latest news stories (click here), the Attorney General will seek to have the entire group of cases dismissed on standing grounds. The result is still uncertain, but reports that the plaintiff never visited most of the locations sued seem to point toward a decision favorable to the State.** More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Vending Machines, ADA Web Access, Internet Tags: ADA Internet, ADA vending machines, ADA web, Coca Cola ADA, internet accessibility, Magee v Coca Cola
“In deciding that Coca–Cola’s vending machines in the instant case are not places of public accommodation, we acknowledge the limits of our holding. As the district court recognized, those vending machines may very well be subject to various requirements under the ADA by virtue of their being located in a hospital or a bus station, both of which are indisputably places of public accommodation. Here, however, Magee sued only Coca–Cola, an entity that does not own, lease (or lease to), or operate a place of public accommodation.”
Magee v. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Inc., 2016 WL 4363306, at *5 (5th Cir. Aug. 15, 2016).
Last month the Fifth Circuit confirmed a lower court decision finding that vending machines were not public accommodations and that by themselves they are not required to be accessible. The reasoning was very similar to that in the Netflix and Target cases from the Ninth Circuit. Like the Fifth Circuit, the Ninth Circuit found that a “public accommodation” means a physical store or similar facility where one buys goods or services. A website (in Netflix) or a vending machine (in Magee) might be a service of a public accommodation, in which case the public accommodation may be required to make it accessible. By itself, however, a website or vending machine is not a public accommodation. Standing alone it is not required to be accessible because it is simply not covered by the ADA.
The same kind of argument led to a similar result in Am. Ass’n of People with Disabilities v. Harris, 647 F.3d 1093 (11th Cir. 2011). The issue in Harris was whether voting machines were required to be accessible. The Court found they were not because the machines themselves were not public accommodations.
A completely different view appears in cases like Carparts Distribution Ctr., Inc. v. Auto. Wholesaler’s Ass’n of New England, Inc., 37 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. 1994) that focus less on the definition of public accommodation and more on the notion that goods and services should be accessible. These courts tend to view a distinction based on how goods or services may be purchased as irrational. Buying on the web or by phone shouldn’t be any different than buying in a physical store, at least with respect to accessibility. Carparts was a pre-internet case dealing with telephone transactions, but it resembles recent cases like Scribd that make the same argument.
The position of the Department of Justice lines up with that of the First Circuit in Carparts, even though its regulatory definitions of words like “facility” would seem to support McGee. At the end of the day though the day the courts will decide just what the ADA covers.
What we see in the contrast between McGee and Carparts is competing views of the ADA, with McGee representing courts who believe Congress applied the ADA only to public accommodations because it is focused on physical accessibility, while Carparts reflects the views of those courts and the Department of Justice who see the ADA as a broad mandate for accessibility regardless of its specific language. These views cannot be reconciled, and while the question of internet accessibility tends to dominate today’s discussion of the ADA, it is worthwhile to remember that cases about vending machines and telephone services will also help define the law in individual circuits – at least until the Supreme Court is finally given a chance to weigh in on the subject.
NOTE: for earlier blogs on this subject, click on the ADA Web Access category to the left.