I’ve been posting a lot of blogs in the last few days in an effort to catch up with a backlog of important or at least interesting cases. Just as I was wrapping up this Quick Hits blog the Sixth Circuit handed down its decision in Brintley v. Aeroquip Credit Union, precipitating the blog’s publication. Subscribers who feel they are being spammed can rest assured the pace of posts will slacken – assuming the pace of ADA and FHA accessibility developments slackens, of course. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - Hotels, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Web Access, ADA Website Accessibility Tags: ADA defense, ADA drive-by, ADA serial litigation, ADA standing, ADA website, Maximilian Travis, Vaughn & Associates
Today’s blog concerns a couple of cases reported to me by colleagues in California and New York. They give a snapshot of how courts at both ends of the country are thinking about ADA lawsuits. The snapshot at left is pretty much in the middle, near Telluride Colorado.
Welcome to the Hotel California
I was alerted to the California case, Whitaker v. ARS REI USA Corp., by Vaughn & Associates, who represent the defendant. The case illustrates the odd yin and yang of litigation in California, where the shifting tides of state law have altered the litigation landscape in recent years. To understand why requires a little background. California’s Unruh Act parallels the ADA but provides for statutory damages of $4,000 per violation. The ADA does not provide for damages, so an Unruh Act claim is better for the plaintiff. That damage remedy has driven ADA litigation at volumes that make California a clear leader in the number of ADA lawsuits filed if state and federal court cases are counted. More
My colleague William Goren recently shared with me some correspondence with an internet service for attorneys that was offering a free webinar. Bill is deaf and was inquiring about captioning for the webinar. The response was that the service through which the webinar was offered didn’t offer captioning. I had looked at the same issue myself a few years ago in an effort to make my own webinars more accessible. What I found was that to add captions to a prerecorded webinar is relatively easy and inexpensive, but that live captioning was both technically difficult and expensive. Bill’s inquiry made me spend some additional time looking at whether captioning is something the ADA should require (assuming, of course, that the ADA even applies to websites and services provided on the internet).
The first place to look for web accessibility standards is, of course, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They have no legal standing, but they have been used as the de facto standard by the Department of Justice and at least one district court. They are also incorporated into the regulations for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires accessibility for federal government electronic communications, including websites.
WCAG 2.0 success criterion 1.2.4 requires captioning for live audio content in synchronized media – meaning live video presentations in which someone talks. This is a success level AA criterion, so it falls within the requirements imposed by Section 508 and the many settlements negotiated by DOJ and others. However, WCAG success criteria seem to be based more on the availability of technology than the cost of the service. The underlying principle seems to be if you can do it you should do it even though the cost may be prohibitive.
This is where reasonableness and undue burden come into play. Remember that unlike other anti-discrimination statutes the ADA requires affirmative action to make public accommodations and their services accessible.* For the disabled, equal treatment isn’t enough because their disabilities make it difficult or impossible to take advantage of facilities and services as they exist. Without the requirement of affirmative action any public accommodation could claim it was not discriminating as long as it provided the same physical space and services to everyone. Sections 12182(b)(2) and 12183 contain the affirmative action requirements at the heart of Title III of the ADA. Section 12183 concerning new construction doesn’t apply to websites at all, so disabled website accessibility advocates must find relief in something under Section 12182(b)(2)(A). Of these only (ii) and (iii) plausibly apply to an inaccessible website, and these are both qualified. Section 12182(b)(2)(A)(ii) requires “reasonable” modifications in policies, procedures etc while Section 12182(b)(2)(A)(iii) requires the provision of auxiliary aids and services only if they do not impose an “undue burden.”
Thus, under any theory of website accessibility the changes needed to make a website accessible must either be reasonable or not impose an undue burden. WCAG 2.0 suggests that captioning is not so technically difficult providing it would be unreasonable or burdensome, but WCAG 2.0 doesn’t look at cost, and for captioning cost is as much an issue as technical ability. So, where can we find information about what cost is reasonable for captioning?
Fortunately there is a law and set of regulations that looked very specifically at the cost of captioning technology. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed in part as a reaction to the holding in Stoutenborough v. Natl. Football League, Inc., 59 F.3d 580 (6th Cir. 1995), a case that refused to apply the ADA to football broadcasts. It did not directly address captioning, but the effect was to exempt broadcasters from any ADA accessibility requirement. The Telecommunications Act remedied this by providing for a phased in requirement that TV broadcasts be captioned. It gave the FCC authority to implement the captioning requirement and in particular to determine by rule when it would be too costly.
The FCC regulations took cost into account when creating a series of “self-executing” exemptions to the captioning requirement. Two of those exemptions are relevant to the reasonableness and undue burden problem under the ADA. The FCC exempts from captioning any broadcaster with less than three million dollars in annual revenue or for whom captioning would cost in excess of 2% of gross revenues. This is pretty clearly a regulatory finding that these costs are excessive in relation to the benefit of captioning live video.
Television broadcasts and webcasts are not perfectly comparable, of course, but it seems unlikely the cost of captioning a live webcast is any less than the cost of captioning a live television broadcast despite possible differences in technology. The biggest difference is likely to be that the capital and licensing costs associated with television broadcasting mean most broadcasters will not meet this economic exemption. The ease and low cost of internet webcasting, on the other hand, make it very likely that a large majority of webcasters would be exempt under these standards. In any case, for this slice of the accessibility pie we do have a reasonably authoritative determination as to when the cost of accessibility imposes an undue burden on the owner or operator of a webcast. If the webcaster has revenues of less than three million dollars or the cost of captioning would exceed 2% of its revenues then notwithstanding the WCAG success criteria captioning of live webcasts should be regarded as an undue burden.
* See the discussion in Natl. Fedn. of the Blind v. Target Corp., 452 F. Supp. 2d 946, 951 (N.D. Cal. 2006).
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Attorney's Fees, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Policies Tags: ADA defense, ADA Internet, ADA website, CSUN Assistive, Lainey Feingold, WCAG
I’m just departing from the 2019 Assistive Technology Conference with a few prejudices confirmed but with some new ideas as well.
I spoke with a number of companies that sell consulting services for web accessibility based on a wide range of business models. Since the website litigation storm broke in 2015 the field has developed, but there is still no good accessibility solution for a small retail store or restaurant. Simple websites are less likely to have accessibility issues, but their owners are heavily dependent on small, independent web designers and developers who often live in blissful ignorance of accessibility issues. Twenty-five years after passage of the ADA strip shopping centers that don’t meet ADA standards are still being built because smaller contractors and one person architecture firms don’t know about or understand the construction standards. The same thing will be true for web accessibility twenty-five years from now if we don’t find a way to educate the web design community about it. For those who don’t want to wait the following link has a list of resources from Lainey Feingold’s website. Resources.
It seems likely that accessibility litigation concerning mobile applications is going to increase. Easy to use tools for testing the accessibility of mobile apps are now becoming more available. That will make it easy for those members of the plaintiffs’ bar who are on the prowl for targets to find mobile apps to sue. In this case however businesses and developers have the lead time needed to make their apps accessible if they will only pay attention to the need.
Speaking of the plaintiffs’ bar, I was reminded by Ms. Feingold that buried in the avalanche of lawsuits whose only purpose seems to be lawyer enrichment are a few brought by organizations and individuals whose first concern is accessibility for those who are disabled. It is a reminder that the real problem with web accessibility cases is not that they exist, but that they are wasteful because they divert resources away from accessibility and to lawyers, whether on the plaintiff or defense side. The most needed ADA reform is one that delivers robust enforcement without waste.
A number of defense lawyers, including myself, spoke about one aspect or another website accessibility litigation. No one is defending the idea that websites should remain inaccessible, but cases are being defended nonetheless for various reasons, including unreasonable settlement demands by plaintiff’s lawyers and defendants who are simply fed up with being sued over and over again based on supposed WCAG non-comformance that does not affect the usability of the site. DOJ’s refusal to regulate is part of the problem, but it is becoming clear that reliance on WCAG 2.0 AA as an ADA standard imposes an unreasonable requirement of perfection on any website. Our existing model for measuring accessibility comes from the world of physical access. Strict technical requirements make sense when you’re building a permanent physical structure because if it is built to comply with the requirements it generally continues to remain compliant. Modern websites are complex and dynamic. Compliance with any rigid standard is bound to fail as the website changes over time. We need a regulatory definition of ADA compliance focused on usability rather than technical perfection.
The main takeaway for me was that a lot of people are working very hard to make the world more accessible for the disabled, but the emphasis in the news is on those who abuse the system for some kind of personal gain. The reporting is not the problem. It simply reflects the fact that the existing statute and regulations lend themselves to abuse. Unfortunately the solutions are all political, and political solutions don’t seem possible right now. The best advice remains the same as in 2014. If you have a website, You need a nerd, not a lawyer.
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Web Access Tags: ADA defense, ADA Internet, ada litigation, ADA website, website accessibility
Like Coke machines, websites are not places of public accommodation subject to the ADA according to Judge Sim Lake’s January 24, 2019 decision in Zaid v. Smart Fin. Credit Union, 2019 WL 314732 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 24, 2019). It is a holding of first impression in the Fifth Circuit and it can be hoped it will influence the flood of cases sure to follow.* The Court’s reasoning was straightforward: The list of public accommodations in the ADA itself refers exclusively to physical places and the Fifth Circuit’s holding in Magee v. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Incorporated, 833 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 2016) confirms that only physical places can be places of public accommodation.** More