In any given week, dozens of lawsuits are filed in federal courts across the United States alleging that businesses violate Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which governs the accessibility of places of public accommodation. While many of these lawsuits now focus on website accessibility, a significant number of them continue to focus on the alleged inaccessibility of brick-and-mortar business establishments, particularly restaurants and hotels. These “drive by” ADA lawsuits often focus on the inaccessibility of architectural elements that can be easily assessed by “testers” without even frequenting the establishment in question—e.g., parking spaces, sidewalks, entrances, public restrooms, host/check-in stations, and pools—sometimes even relying on online images. Moreover, the allegations asserted are often highly technical in nature—living and dying by a matter of centimeters—known only to those who specialize in accessibility. Notably, the vast majority of these claims are brought by a relatively small community of serial plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ counsel for whom achieving compliance is secondary to quickly obtaining a settlement payment and attorneys’ fees.
On February 15, 2018, in an effort to curb such drive-by ADA lawsuits, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation—the ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 620) (“ADAERA”)—that would require that would-be plaintiffs first provide written notice of alleged architectural barriers and a period to cure before being able to commence a Title III litigation in federal court. Under ADAERA, before plaintiffs could file a Title III claim alleging architectural barriers in federal court, they would first have to provide written notice of the existence of barriers to accessibility (containing sufficient specificity, and citations to the relevant sections of the ADA, to allow the barriers to be identified by the business). The business would then have 60 days from receipt of the notice to provide a plan for the remediation of the existing barriers and an additional 120 days to eliminate the barriers or make substantial progress in doing so. If the business does not respond to the initial letter within 60 days or does not make substantial progress in eliminating the barriers within the following 120 days, then the plaintiff can commence a federal Title III litigation. ADAERA also seeks to create a model program for the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in the resolution of federal Title III claims (e.g., a mediation program that stays discovery while the mediation proceeds). Of course, before it can become law, ADAERA still needs to be passed by the Senate (given the Senate’s current composition, there is no guarantee that it will pass) and then signed by President Trump.
It should come as no surprise that ADAERA has been met with a wide range of reactions. Proponents of the bill argue that ADAERA would preserve the intended purpose of Title III—removing barriers to accessibility—but eliminate the existing incentives for plaintiffs’ counsel to flood the courts with lawsuits premised on minute technical architectural violations with the primary goal of churning up and quickly collecting fees via a settlement. Opponents argue that, as the ADA has been law for more than 25 years, businesses that are not currently in compliance with Title III should not get the benefit of notice and additional time to comply with the long-established law. They fear that ADAERA would encourage businesses to ignore their Title III obligations until receiving a notice of deficiency.
Even if ADAERA, as currently constituted, ultimately becomes law, it could very well have unintended consequences that could create even less desirable circumstances for businesses. First, ADAERA would not prevent plaintiffs from bringing similar cases in state court under state and local accessibility laws, which often are even broader and more liberally interpreted than their federal counterpart. Indeed, plaintiffs often already include such claims as part of their federal actions because, unlike under the ADA, many state and local accessibility statutes allow plaintiffs to seek the recovery of damages and/or civil penalties. Second, as ADAERA does not impose notice requirements for claims under Title III relating to businesses’ obligations to (i) make reasonable modifications to their policies, practices, and procedures, or (ii) provide auxiliary aids and services to enable effective communication, plaintiffs might simply turn their focus to a different type of federal Title III claim. In both of these instances, the result could very well be more protracted litigations under less favorable conditions (e.g., a less efficient forum or less clarity regarding requirements for compliance).
While ADAERA still has a way to go before becoming law, this is the furthest a legislative effort to reform Title III to prevent the rampant proliferation of drive-by filings has progressed, and it is worth tracking.
UPDATE: On March 28, 2018, forty-three Democratic senators united to protest the proposed H.R. 620. The filibuster-proof bloc sent a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warning that the proposal “will never receive a vote in the United States Senate during the 115th Congress.” The letter also points out the H.R. 620, as contemplated, would do nothing to curb plaintiffs from pursuing damages claims under state/local laws. The senators instead favor investing in greater education about Title III’s requirements and the development of a mediation program.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter “An Assortment of Legal Issues Hospitality Employers Should Be Considering This Year.”