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.”

After years of ongoing and frequent developments on the website accessibility front, we now finally have – what is generally believed to be – the very first post-trial ADA verdict regarding website accessibility.  In deciding Juan Carlos Gil vs. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. (Civil Action No. 16-23020-Civ-Scola) – a matter in which Winn-Dixie first made an unsuccessful motion to dismiss the case (prompting the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to file a Statement of Interest) – U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. of the Southern District of Florida issued a Verdict and Order ruling in favor of serial Plaintiff, Juan Carlos Gil, holding that Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the ADA (“Title III”) by not providing an accessible public website and, thus, not providing individuals with disabilities with “full and equal enjoyment.”

Judge Scola based his decision on the fact that Winn-Dixie’s website, “is heavily integrated with Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations” that are clearly places of public accommodation covered by Title III and, “operates as a gateway to the physical store locations” (e.g., by providing coupons and a store locator and allowing customers to refill prescriptions).  This line of reasoning follows the “nexus theory” body of law that has been developing over the past several years.  Based upon this conclusion, Winn-Dixie was ordered to: (i) bring its website into conformance with the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines; (ii) develop and adopt a website accessibility policy (publishing aspects of it upon the website); (iii) provide website accessibility training; (iv) conduct regular ongoing compliance audits; and (v) pay Plaintiff’s reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.  The parties were left to negotiate the exact timeframe for each requirement.

While this post-trial verdict does not have precedential value in other matters, it does raise a variety of points that businesses should consider as they continue to confront the still-increasing number of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits:

  • The Court applied the nexus theory to the Winn-Dixie website even though customers could not make purchases directly through the website.  The Court deemed the ability to obtain coupons and link them to customer discount cards (for use in stores), refill prescriptions (for in-store pick up), and the presence of the store locator sufficient services for a nexus to exist between the brick and mortar locations and the website;
  • By applying the nexus theory, the Court was able to avoid having to rule on whether a website is a public accommodation in and of itself (a point of law courts remain split on);
  • The Court adopted the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines as the standard of website accessibility, thus following DOJ, the recently refreshed standards for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Air Carrier Access Act, and countless private settlements between businesses and advocacy groups or private plaintiffs reached over the past 5 years;
  • The Court gave heavy weight to the testimony of an “accessibility consultant” who had conducted an audit of the Winn-Dixie site and testified very favorably for the Plaintiff that he did not believe that remediation process would be terribly difficult;
  • Relying upon the accessibility consultant’s representations, the Court went far beyond the scope of most existing website accessibility agreements by holding Winn-Dixie must require that any third-parties – including tech-giants such as Google – who are responsible for aspects of the website to also conform to the WCAG 2.0 while operating as part of the Winn-Dixie website;
  • The Court was unmoved by Winn-Dixie’s estimates that the remediation work to bring the website into conformance with WCAG 2.0 could cost upwards of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars ($250,000), and did not believe that such an amount would constitute an undue burden, noting that in the preceding 2 years the company had spent a total of approximately nine million dollars ($9,000,000) to launch a new website and then modify that new website to roll out a new customer rewards system; and, finally, in the one somewhat helpful piece for businesses;
  • The Court noted that in making a website accessible, a business need not ensure that it is accessible on all browsers and when read by all screen reader programs, provided that it is accessible on “main browsers” (e.g., Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Apple Safari) when read by “main screen reader programs” (e.g., JAWS and NVDA).

Given the Trump Administration’s edict against the promulgation of new regulations (without first eliminating multiple existing similar regulations) it is increasingly unlikely that DOJ will issue private sector website accessibility regulations in the near future.  Therefore, businesses can expect advocacy groups and private (often serial) plaintiffs to continue to threaten and/or bring website accessibility actions under both the ADA and corresponding state laws.  With that in mind, this verdict serves as a strong reminder of the risks of litigating a website accessibility matter, at least in situations where there is a reasonably clear nexus between a brick and mortar place of public accommodation and the website.

Our colleagues Judah L. Rosenblatt, Jeffrey H. Ruzal, and Susan Gross Sholinsky, at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Hospitality Labor and Employment Law Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “Where Federal Expectations Are Low Governor Cuomo Introduces Employee Protective Mandates in New York.”

Following is an excerpt:

Earlier this week New York Governor Andrew D. Cuomo (D) signed two executive orders and announced a series of legislative proposals specifically aimed at eliminating the wage gap in gender, among other workers and strengthening equal pay protection in New York State. The Governor’s actions are seen by many as an alternative to employer-focused federal policies anticipated once President-elect Donald J. Trump (R) takes office. …

According to the Governor’s Press Release, the Governor will seek to amend State law to hold the top 10 members of out-of-state limited liability companies (“LLC”) personally financially liable for unsatisfied judgments for unpaid wages. This law already exists with respect to in-state and out-of-state corporations, as well as in-state LLCs. The Governor is also seeking to empower the Labor Commissioner to pursue judgments against the top 10 owners of any corporations or domestic or foreign LLCs for wage liabilities on behalf of workers with unpaid wage claims. …

Read the full post here.