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On June 10, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania certified a putative class action against an online apparel company related to alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiff claimed that he was unable to access the defendant’s website because the website did not facilitate access to customers using screen readers or other auxiliary aids. This lack of access made the website not fully accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired—a “violation of the effective communications and equal access requirements of Title III” of the ADA. The plaintiff sued, seeking to include a class of similarly situated blind and visually impaired individuals who use screen readers or other auxiliary aids to access the defendant’s website and/or mobile app. According to the plaintiff, the defendant failed to have in place adequate policies and practices to ensure its website was fully accessible, and that, although the defendant maintains a single brick-and-mortar location, most of its sales are digital. In certifying the class, the court determined, among other things, that the defendant’s “website and other digital properties affected all members of the class, and thus the class as a whole shares the same interest in obtaining the injunctive relief provided by the settlement—prospective changes to [defendant’s] digital properties.” The court also preliminarily approved the proposed class action settlement, which requires, among other things, that the defendant make several changes to its policies and procedures to ensure accessibility of its digital properties and to make sure it complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1.
On May 12, the DOJ and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a technical assistance document addressing disability discrimination when using artificial intelligence (AI) and other software tools to make employment decisions. According to the announcement, the DOJ’s guidance document, Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Disability Discrimination in Hiring, provides a broad overview of rights and responsibilities in plain language, and, among other things, (i) provides examples of technological tools used by employers; (ii) clarifies that employers must consider the impact on different disabilities when designing or choosing technological tools; (iii) describes employers’ obligations under the ADA when using algorithmic decision-making tools; and (iv) provides information for employees on actions they may take if they believe they have experienced discrimination. The EEOC also released a technical assistance document, The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Use of Software, Algorithms, and Artificial Intelligence to Assess Job Applicants and Employees, which focuses on preventing discrimination against job seekers and employees with disabilities.
On March 18, the DOJ released guidance on web accessibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) explaining how businesses open to the public, including banks (entities covered by ADA Title III), and state and local governments can make sure their websites comply with ADA requirements. “Even though businesses and state and local governments have flexibility in how they comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication, they still must ensure that the programs, services, and goods that they provide to the public—including those provided online—are accessible to people with disabilities,” the guidance stated. The DOJ addressed several topics within the guidance, including the importance of website accessibility, examples of barriers that inaccessible websites create for people with disabilities, when the ADA requires web content to be accessible, and advice on making web content accessible. Also provided are links to accessibility resources and existing technical standards offering helpful guidance concerning ways to ensure the accessibility of website features, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The guidance also provides examples of the DOJ’s ongoing work to advance website accessibility for people with disabilities through statements of interest and enforcement matters.
On April 7, a split U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit concluded that a website is not a “public accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiff sued a supermarket chain under Title III of the ADA, alleging its website was incompatible with screen reader software and caused him injury by denying him the “full and equal enjoyment” provided to sighted customers. The district court issued a judgment ordering the supermarket chain to bring its website into compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standard after concluding that the plaintiff sufficiently demonstrated a sufficient “nexus” between the website and the supermarket chain’s physical premises. On appeal, the appellate court reviewed, among other things, the question of whether websites are public accommodations under the ADA. The majority vacated the district court’s ruling that the website was an intangible barrier to the supermarket chain’s physical stores and in violation of the ADA. Specifically, the majority reviewed the 12 types of locations listed as public accommodations under Title III, and found that none of them were “intangible places or spaces, such as websites.”
The majority further distinguished its conclusion from its holding in Rendon. v. Valleycrest Products, Ltd., in which it determined that the ADA covers both tangible, physical barriers as well as “intangible barriers, such as eligibility requirements and screening rules or discriminatory policies and procedures that restrict a disabled person’s ability to enjoy the defendant entity’s goods, services and privileges,” noting that the “limited use website, although inaccessible by individuals who are visually disabled, does not function as an intangible barrier to an individual with a visual disability accessing the goods, services, privileges or advantages of [the supermarket chain’s] physical stores.” Moreover, the majority rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Rendon established that a plaintiff only has to demonstrate a “nexus” between the service and the physical public accommodation, declining to adopt such a standard after finding no basis for it in the ADA or in previous precedent. This decision further divides the circuits over the scope of a “public accommodation.”
On July 30, seven Republican Senators sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr requesting updates on the DOJ’s efforts to clarify website accessibility requirements for businesses under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This request follows a letter previously sent to the DOJ in September 2018, requesting the Department’s help in resolving uncertainties regarding website accessibility regulations and requesting guidance to address conflicting court opinions. According to the Senators, the DOJ withdrew two Notices of Proposed Rulemaking concerning website accessibility standards in 2017 under claims that it is “evaluating whether promulgating regulations about the accessibility of Web information and services is necessary and appropriate. Such an evaluation will be informed by additional review of data and further analysis. The Department will continue to assess whether specific technical standards are necessary and appropriate to assist covered entities with complying with the ADA.” The DOJ responded a month later, stating that “absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a specific voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”
In their 2019 letter, the Senators stressed that, because the DOJ did not specify further concrete plans to address website accessibility guidance, businesses are subject to litigation risk and inconsistent outcomes. Moreover, the Senators urged the DOJ to provide further clarity, particularly because the issue of whether private websites must comply with the ADA “continues to be subject to conflicting judicial opinions.” Additionally, they pointed to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standard, which governs website accessibility for federal government websites, and noted that if the government gets the benefit of clear guidance, then the public should as well.
On July 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss a plaintiff’s claim that a credit union’s website accessibility barriers violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the plaintiff is not a member of the credit union, nor can he become one. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last year the district court granted the credit union’s motion to dismiss on standing grounds because the plaintiff—who tests software that reads text aloud for visually impaired users to access content on the internet—had no plausible reason to use the credit union’s website because the website was directed at members of the credit union for which he was ineligible. The court found that the plaintiff lacked standing because he failed to allege “concrete and particularized” injuries when he claimed he suffered dignitary and informational harm stemming from his inability to access information on the website, and cited to a recent 4th Circuit decision in Griffin v. Dep’t of Labor Fed. Credit Union, which held that “a plaintiff who is legally barred from using a credit union’s services cannot demonstrate an injury that is either concrete or particularized.”
On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with the district court, finding that “Illinois law prevents [the plaintiff’s] dignitary harm from materializing into a concrete injury,” and that “indignation at violation of the law” is not concrete or particularized as is required to show standing. The appellate court also noted that the plaintiff’s informational harm claim failed as well because “[h]is alleged injury flows from the [c]redit [u]nion’s failure to support his software, not its refusal to disclose information about its services.”
On January 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to a national pizza chain’s website and mobile app “even though customers predominantly access them away from the physical restaurant” because the “statute applies to the services of a public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation.” According to the opinion, the plaintiff sued the defendant seeking damages and injunctive relief, contending that the defendant’s website and app did not work with his screen-reading software. The plaintiff requested that the court order the defendant to alter its website and app to comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and make it accessible to individuals with disabilities as required by Title III of the ADA. The defendant argued that the ADA does not apply to its online offerings, and that applying the ADA would violate its due process rights.
Although the district court held that Title III of the ADA applied to the defendant’s website and app, it granted defendant’s motion to dismiss under the primary jurisdiction doctrine, stating that in order to “cure” due process concerns, it would require “meaningful guidance” on website accessibility standards yet to be issued by the DOJ in order “to determine what obligations a regulated individual or institution must abide by in order to comply with Title III.” On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed the district court’s reliance on the primary jurisdiction doctrine, finding it to be inapplicable since waiting for the DOJ to provide guidance on accessibility standards would cause “needless” delay of a resolution the lower court could determine. Moreover, the fact that the DOJ has not articulated a website accessibility standard does not violate a defendant’s due process rights because the “ADA articulates comprehensible standards to which [the defendant’s] conduct must conform.”
11th Circuit holds deaf plaintiff not required to file complaint with FCC before filing lawsuit under other federal disability rights laws
On September 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit vacated a district court’s decision to grant a Florida city’s (City) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that (i) the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) did not require the appellant to exhaust his remedies before the FCC prior to commencing a lawsuit under other federal disability statutes; and (ii) the primary-jurisdiction doctrine does not apply to this case.
According to the opinion, the appellant, a deaf individual, alleged that none of the video content stored on the City’s four webpages provided closed captioning, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court dismissed the action without prejudice, holding the CVAA requires exhaustion of remedies by the FCC as a prerequisite to the filing of a lawsuit.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit rejected as “an overbroad reading of the statute” the City’s argument that the CVAA contains an exhaustion requirement for claims brought under other disability rights statutes. In support of its position that the FCC only has exclusive jurisdiction over closed captioning complaints brought under the relevant section of the CVAA, the Court cited a 9th Circuit decision, which concluded “the FCC’s exclusive jurisdiction over complaints under the CVAA does nothing to extinguish [the plaintiff’s] right to pursue broader relief for online captioning under [California state law].” In rejecting the City’s primary-jurisdiction argument, the 11th Circuit first cited instances where the FCC—in a report to Congress and in a communication to this plaintiff in an unrelated action—took the position that the CVAA does not require plaintiffs to exhaust administrative remedies as a prerequisite to bringing lawsuits under other federal statutes. The Court also applied the two-factor primary jurisdiction doctrine test, concluding that (i) the FCC has no expertise with respect to the claims under the other federal disability rights statutes before the lower court; and (ii) “this case presents no special need for uniformity.”
On August 7, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed claims that a credit union’s website violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), holding that the plaintiff lacked standing because he was not (and was ineligible to be) a member of the credit union. According to the opinion, the plaintiff is permanently blind and alleged that the credit union’s website did not comply with ADA requirements that are applicable to online website accessibility. The district court granted the credit union’s motion to dismiss on standing grounds, finding the plaintiff had no plausible reason to use the credit union’s website because the website was directed at members of the credit union, and the plaintiff was not (and was ineligible to be) a member.
On June 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that a plaintiff’s claims against a national restaurant chain for allegedly operating a website that was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are not moot despite a previous settlement with a separate plaintiff. The plaintiff sued the restaurant chain seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, requesting that the court (i) order the restaurant to alter its website and make it accessible to individuals with disabilities as required by Title III of the ADA; and (ii) order the restaurant chain to continually update and maintain that accessibility. Prior to the plaintiff’s filing, the restaurant chain reached a settlement in an earlier case with similar claims. The district court held that the plaintiff’s claims were moot because the restaurant chain had already agreed to the remedy the plaintiff sought in the previous settlement and had begun the process of its remediation plan by placing an accessibility notice on its website. On appeal, the 11th Circuit disagreed with the lower court, holding that the plaintiff’s claims are not moot, finding that the restaurant chain has not yet successfully remediated its website and the plaintiff’s request for an injunction against the restaurant chain if the website is not brought into compliance is still viable. The appellate court also noted that the current plaintiff would have no way of enforcing the settlement’s remediation plan because he was not a party to that action.
- Jedd R. Bellman to discuss “The CFPB’s crackdown on collection junk fees and the growing anti-CFPB rhetoric” at an Accounts Recovery webinar
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