Justice Department Settles ADA Claims against Debt Collector

A recent Department of Justice settlement with a debt collection law firm that was accused of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act exemplifies the mounting federal scrutiny of the debt collection industry. The DOJ launched an investigation after two deaf individuals filed complaints claiming that the firm had violated the ADA by refusing to accept calls they made using a relay service designed to assist callers with impaired hearing.

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities at places of public accommodation, including law firms. Title III requires public accommodations to make reasonable modifications to their policies, practices, and procedures when necessary to afford equal access to people with disabilities, unless doing so would fundamentally alter the goods or services provided. The DOJ is authorized to file civil actions under Title III seeking civil penalties and monetary relief for aggrieved persons.

Both complaints alleged Title III violations. In one complaint, a law firm employee was alleged to have violated the ADA when he hung up on the complainant, and in the other, an employee was alleged to have violated the ADA when he refused to take the complainant’s call and told her to call back at another time when a manager was present. In the settlement, the law firm acknowledged that the second employee was following the firm’s instructions.

The settlement requires the law firm to pay $30,000 in compensation to the complainants. It also requires the firm to adopt and implement a new policy (attached to the settlement agreement) for ensuring that the firm can effectively communicate with individuals with disabilities. This policy sets forth the firm’s obligation to provide, free of charge, various “auxiliary aids and services” to enable the delivery of information to individuals who are deaf, are hard of hearing, or have speech disabilities, as well as to those who are blind or have low vision.

In addition, the policy contains examples of the types of equipment, materials, and services that may serve as appropriate “auxiliary aids and services.” The firm’s employees must receive training on the firm’s ADA obligations, with the training materials to be approved in advance by the DOJ.

Lawyers in Ballard Spahr's Consumer Financial Services Group regularly consult with their clients engaged in consumer debt collection on federal and state law compliance, including compliance with the ADA, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and state debt collection laws. In addition, the group has created a team of lawyers who have already conducted compliance reviews for debt collectors and debt buyers in anticipation of their first Consumer Financial Protection Bureau examinations.

For more information, please contact Practice Leader Alan S. Kaplinsky at 215.864.8544 or kaplinsky@ballardspahr.com, Practice Leader Jeremy T. Rosenblum at 215.864.8505 or rosenblum@ballardspahr.com, John L. Culhane, Jr., at 215.864.8535 or culhane@ballardspahr.com, Christopher J. Willis at 678.420.9436 or mailto:willisc@ballardspahr.com, or Mark J. Furletti at 215.864.8138 or furlettim@ballardspahr.com.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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