Plaintiffs' attorneys have discovered a new, rich litigation vein to exploit, potentially yielding a treasure of targets to sue. Using Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and applying it to a modern societal institution (the internet) that was not in existence or contemplated when that law was enacted, lawyers may have hit pay dirt again by claiming that websites are not accessible to the disabled.
Title III of the ADA requires places that are open to the public to not discriminate against individuals due to their disability or otherwise deny them “the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” These rules apply to any company that permits “entry” by the public. Although traditionally Title III of the ADA has been applied to physical structures, recent cases have raised issues as to whether these rules may apply to websites, as well.
To date, the case law addressing these issues is very limited and has been mixed. Case law from the Seventh Circuit has applied the ADA to websites, and the First, Second and Eleventh Circuits have applied the ADA beyond physical structures, providing ground for plaintiffs to argue that the ADA can extend to a virtual space such as websites. Meanwhile, the Third, Fifth and Ninth Circuits have applied the ADA provisions to physical locations only.
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The Department of Justice, which is responsible for interpreting and enforcing Title III of the ADA, says that Title III does apply to websites. However, in typical government fashion, the DOJ has delayed releasing its “accessibility” guidelines for webpages, with an anticipated release date in 2018.
While the regulations and laws on website accessibility may be unclear, a few law firms are nonetheless sending out demand letters targeting specific industry sectors nationwide (for example, private universities and real estate brokerage firms) and demanding compliance with onerous website standards. The letters ask the recipient to hire the plaintiff's law firm (or their preferred vendor) to help reach an “acceptable level” of compliance. In addition, several national retailers, including Patagonia, Ace Hardware, Aeropostale and Bed Bath & Beyond have been named in lawsuits regarding accessibility to their sites. According to Bloomberg’s BNA reports, 45 of these type of lawsuits were launched in 2015. That number is expected to increase substantially in 2016.
With the law so unclear on this topic, how should businesses navigate these murky waters? First, if you receive one of these demand letters, you should consider contacting an attorney and should avoid engaging in discussions with the plaintiff or their law firm without representation. Then, along with your attorney and an IT representative (in-house or a vendor), develop a strategy to bring your webpage into accessibility compliance. Although there is no “one-size fits all” approach to move toward compliance, depending on what is on your website, businesses can consider providing audible text on each webpage and providing audible captions for pictures. Ultimately, to play it safe you may want to take all reasonable steps to improve navigation and access on your website.
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Lawsuits related to website accessibility could likely be next cash cow for plaintiffs' attorneys. As the early case law on this issue is so mixed, there is little guidance as to who has to be compliant and what exactly compliance would look like. Until the DOJ gets around to issuing guidelines (assuming they provide much guidance), businesses should consider reviewing their websites and documenting reasonable efforts to make the sites accessible to the disabled. Further, companies should consider purchasing a robust employment practices liability (EPL) policy with broad third-party coverage that can potentially pick up the defense of claims related to website access claims.
This article was co-written by Marty Heller.