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, Ilya Torchinsky, lost his license to practice. Now another member of the group, Jerome Ramsaran, has incorporated a new supposed disability rights group, Pursuit of Respect, Inc., which is pursuing 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 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 email@example.com 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
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Mootness, ADA Public Accommodation, ADA Web Access, FHA, FHA Reasonable Accommodation, Interactive Process Tags: ADA defense, ADA Multidistrict Litigation, FHA Defense, Hotel accessibility litigation, WCAG 3.0
Valentines Day, which has been in the stores since December 26, has finally arrived in reality. Since I last blogged a few weeks ago the courts have continued to decide cases and the blogosphere has continued to cover, or mis-cover, accessibility related news. Here’s a sweet collection of matters to read after you’ve finished your celebration of the day.
WCAG 3.0 – Will it really matter at all?
The preliminary draft of WCAG 3.0 has generated a lot of attention. From a litigation defense standpoint the possible new standards are irrelevant, as is compliance with existing standards. Lawsuits are not filed to make the web more accessible; they are filed to make lawyers rich (or richer). As long as it is cheaper to settle than fight most businesses will continue to pay off the plaintiffs lawyers regardless of how accessible their websites might be. For those who do care about accessibility the new standard adopts a different approach that is focused less on specific technical requirements and more on the actual experience of the disabled user. Lawyers will recognize this as similar (though with much more detail) to the meaningful access standard required by Title II of the ADA. It remains to be seen whether DOJ, which will almost certainly restart the regulatory process under the Biden administration, can balance the certainty of strictly technical standards against the purpose of the ADA, which is meaningful access. That balance and the courts’ willingness to require plausible allegations concerning web access in order to meet the Iqbal / Twombly pleading standard will determine the future of website accessibility litigation. If courts are willing to require plaintiffs to plead facially credible claims that they were denied meaningful access to the content of a website than a new regulatory standard based on meaningful access could slow down the litigation industry and help businesses make their websites accessible in a meaningful way. If not the abuse of the ADA for the benefit of lawyers will continue unabated. More