There is more bad news for businesses that thought that they could wait for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue specific regulations before making their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities. Federal Magistrate Judge Robertson in the District of Massachusetts recently denied motions by Harvard and MIT to dismiss or stay website accessibility class action lawsuits, and recommended that the lawsuits move forward to discovery. The judge found that the existing law and regulations provide a basis for the deaf advocates’ claim that the universities violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide closed captioning for thousands of videos on their websites. The judge rejected the universities’ arguments that the court dismiss or stay the case while DOJ works on its proposed rules for website accessibility, finding that the court did not need the agency’s expertise to adjudicate the cases. The judge did, however, give weight to the DOJ’s interpretation of the ADA expressed in its Statement of Interest filed in the Harvard and MIT lawsuits.
The Magistrate Judge’s recommendation will not be a final order of the court until U.S. District Court Judge Mastroianni adopts it. Even after adoption, the decision will not be a finding that the universities have violated the law or that they must caption all videos on their websites. The ruling would simply allow the cases to move forward to discovery. As Judge Robertson noted, the schools will have an opportunity to assert various defenses later in the case. For example, Harvard and MIT might show that they provide access to their videos in some alternative, equivalent matter. They might also seek to establish that providing closed captioning for some or all videos on their websites would constitute an undue burden or fundamentally alter the nature of the goods and services that they offer.
There are many takeaways from Judge Robertson’s 45-page opinion, but we see two very basic, practical points:
Judges, at least thus far, have not been receptive to the argument that there is no obligation to make websites accessible until DOJ issues regulations on the subject. In 2015, a federal judge in Pittsburgh also denied a defendant bank’s motion to dismiss or for a stay of a website accessibility case, without any discussion or explanation.
Courts seem reluctant to dismiss website accessibility lawsuits at the beginning of the case. This means that the cases will likely continue to discovery and cause defendants to incur potentially substantial costs of defense, even if the defendants ultimately prevails on the merits.
The Harvard and MIT decisions will undoubtedly fuel the continuing explosion of website accessibility cases. We are working to determine how many such suits have been filed and will report it to you as soon as we have it.