While the ADA finished celebrating its 27th anniversary at the end of July, for plaintiffs looking to bring website accessibility complaints in New York the party is still ongoing.  Following on the heels of last month’s decision of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Five Guys, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in Andrews vs. Blick Art Materials, LLC, recently denied a motion to dismiss a website accessibility action, holding that Title III of the ADA (“Title III”), the NYS Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law all apply to websites – not only those with a nexus to brick and mortar places of public accommodation but also to cyber-only websites offering goods and services for sale to the public.

The Court’s decision in Blick was comprehensive – spanning nearly 40 pages – addressing the major theories and defenses website accessibility decisions have been considering with increasing frequency for more than a decade, through lenses that were extremely sympathetic to plaintiff’s claims.  Relying upon the Second Circuit’s decision in Pallozzi v. Allstate., 198 F.3d (2d Cir. 1999), recognizing the need to apply Title III broadly to match the expansive remedial and protective purposes of the ADA (albeit in the context of insurance policies), along with other district court decisions within the Second Circuit expressly applying that same theory to website accessibility (NFB v. Scribd and Five Guys), Judge Weinstein rejected the decisions of other circuits and district courts concluding that Title III only applies to a website when there is a connection to a physical place of public accommodation.  Adopting what it deemed to be a “sensible approach to the ADA”, the Court held that, “Blick is prohibited from discriminating against the blind by failing to take the steps necessary to ensure that the blind have ‘full and equal enjoyment’ of the goods, services, privileges, advantages, facilities, or accommodations of its website – provided that taking such steps would not impose an undue burden on Blick or fundamentally alter the website.”  This conclusion was deemed to embody the broad remedial mandate of the ADA, protecting individuals with disabilities from discrimination and allowing them to fully and equally participate in society – one that in 2017 places significant value on the ability to utilize websites – with accommodations needing to evolve alongside technology.  (The Court postponed a decision on whether such an action is appropriate for a class action.)

In reaching its conclusion, the Blick decision was also the latest to reject defenses based upon primary jurisdiction and due process (joining other decisions such as Hobby Lobby and Harvard/MIT.  First, the Court rejected the primary jurisdiction argument because:  (i) the question at issue was legal in nature and within traditional judicial competence (e.g., courts regularly decide similar issues under Title III involving “full and equal enjoyment” and “effective communication”/“auxiliary aids and services”); and (ii) plaintiff is entitled to a prompt adjudication of his claims (and the U.S. Department of Justice’s failure to promulgate regulations seven years after suggesting it would do so cannot be a reason to delay that process).  To alleviate defendant’s concern that the Court might lack the technical background necessary to rule on the issue, the Court ordered a “Science Day”, during which experts will testify and provide demonstrations about website design and assistive technology.  Second, the Court rejected any claims that plaintiff’s claim would violate concepts of due process, finding that the ADA, which requires a contextual assessment of specific facts against a “gray” backdrop of various defined terms (e.g., “reasonable modification”, “full and equal enjoyment”, “auxiliary aides and services”, “fundamental alteration”, and “undue burden”) is merely providing necessary flexibility.  (Moreover, any challenges by defendant regarding whether specific modifications or remedies might be improper was not ripe at the current stage of the litigation.)

While it is still possible the other cases with different facts decided in the EDNY and SDNY may not follow Blick and Five Guys, for now businesses in New York City must take these decisions seriously.  With DOJ no longer expected to issue clarifying regulations in the near future (if at all) and in light of the recent pro-plaintiff decisions in this case, Five Guys, Winn-Dixie, and Hobby Lobby, the plaintiffs’ bar is further escalating its efforts to blanket most major industries with website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits.  Not only are new players emerging every day, but the well-known plaintiff’s attorneys in this area – emboldened by these recent decisions – are becoming increasingly aggressive.  The Blick decision underscores what we’ve been cautioning clients about for some time – businesses with websites that are either connected to a brick and mortar place of public accommodation or use a website to directly sell goods and services to the public who are looking to avoid website accessibility lawsuits should promptly take the steps necessary to make their websites accessible that we have addressed in our previously website accessibility blogs.

Today marks the 27th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Unfortunately for businesses, two recent developments in the context of website accessibility suggest that there is no reason to celebrate and every reason to believe the ever-increasing wave of demand letters and lawsuits in this area will continue unabated.

First, in Lucia Marett v. Five Guys Enterprises LLC (Case No. 1:17-cv-00788-KBF), the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has finally issued a decision directly speaking to the applicability of Title III of the ADA (Title III) to websites, denying Five Guys’ motion to dismiss, and holding that Title III does indeed apply to websites.  Facing a class action lawsuit brought by serial plaintiff, Lucia Marett, Five Guys sought to dismiss the claim that its website (which, among other things, allows customers to order food online for delivery or pick up at its brick and mortar stores) violated Title III and related state/local statutes because it is inaccessible to the blind, on the grounds that Title III does not apply to websites and, even if it did, the case was moot because Five Guys was in the process of updating its website to provide accessibility.  The Court rejected Five Guys’ arguments.  Citing both the text and the broad and sweeping purpose of the ADA, the Court held that Title III applies to websites – either as its own place of public accommodation or as a result of its close relationship as a service of Five Guys’ restaurants (which the court noted are indisputably public accommodations under Title III).  Further, the court was unmoved by Five Guys’ ongoing efforts to make its website accessible because they had yet to successfully do so and there was no absolutely clear assurance that further accessibility issues would be avoided.  The fact that the Court leaves open the possibility that a website conducting business only in cyber-space might have to comply with Title III is troubling as, to date, that position had remained an outlier, being only adopted by a couple of district courts.

Second, the Trump Administration has finally released its first Unified Regulatory Agenda and – in accordance with its goal of reducing the number of federal regulations – the private sector website accessibility regulations, most recently earmarked for 2018, have been marked as “Inactive.”  The potential for website accessibility regulations has long been one of the factors mitigating against website accessibility lawsuits.  With no reasonable expectation for such regulations in the near future, the courts will continue to serve as the primary forum for the development of this body of law.

These developments, taken in tandem with the recent post-trial verdict for Plaintiff’s in the Winn-Dixie litigation and the recent Hobby Lobby decision further devaluing various jurisdictional and due process defenses may create a perfect storm further emboldening an already aggressive plaintiff’s bar to continue to push website accessibility demands and lawsuits.  Indeed, in recent weeks we have not only seen another surge in the number of such actions being filed, but regular players in this space are using these decisions to push for greater settlement values, and new “copycat” players are starting to enter the fray.

Given the current climate, the best way for companies to try and avoid these litigations remains promptly taking legitimate and comprehensive steps to make their websites accessible.  This is particularly true for companies whose websites are tied to brick and mortar places of public accommodation but, now, may in some contexts and jurisdictions apply equally to cyber-only businesses.  Companies interested in taking such steps should conduct website accessibility audits (both user-based and code-based; and not simply running an automated scanning tool); add website accessibility obligations into vendor agreements; adopt and implement a website accessibility policy; and conduct training for necessary parties.  To the extent such efforts do not prompt plaintiffs to target other websites, they will certainly improve companies’ leverage for settlement negotiations and/or strategies for defending against litigations.

On Thursday, October 30, 2014, our colleague Stuart M. Gerson of Epstein Becker Green’s Litigation and Health Care and Life Sciences practices in the firm’s Washington, DC and New York offices will discuss the Hobby Lobby decision and its impact on the workplace.  The briefing will be held at the Cornell ILR School of Labor and Employment.  Other panelists include Marci A. Hamilton, Esq., Paul R. Verkuil, Esq., Arthur S. Leonard, Esq., and Paul W. Mollica, Esq.

Click here to learn more and to register

When:
Thursday, October 30, 2014
8:30am – Registration & Breakfast
9:00am-11:00am – Program

Where:
Cornell ILR NYC Conference Center
16 East 34th Street, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10016

CLEs:
2.0 NYS CLEs – Professional Practice (Transitional and Non-Transitional)

Fee:
$175 (includes materials and continental breakfast)

Epstein Becker Green and The ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC) have released a new issue of the Benefits Litigation Update.

Featured articles include:

Recent Supreme Court Decisions Revise Rules for Stock Drop Cases
By: Debra Davis, The ERISA Industry Committee

Hobby Lobby and the Questions Left Unanswered
By: John Houston Pope

Post-Amara Landscape Continues to Evolve
By: Scott J. Macey, The ERISA Industry Committee

Supreme Court to Decide Whether A Failed Class Action May Extend
Deadline to Bring Follow-on Claims By Individual Plaintiffs
By: John Houston Pope and Debra Davis

Supreme Court Indicates That It Will Review “Tibble
By: Kenneth J. Kelly

Challenges Could Threaten Individual Subsidies and Employer
Mandate Penalties in States with Federal Exchanges
By: Adam C. Solander

Read more about the Update here or download the full issue in PDF format.