Seyfarth Synopsis: Responding to the surge of website accessibility lawsuits filed under Title III of the ADA, 103 members of Congress from both parties sent a letter to Attorney General Sessions urging action to stem the tide of website accessibility lawsuits.
Just this week, a bi-partisan assembly of 103 members of the House of Representatives, led by Congressmen, Ted Budd (R-NC) and J. Luis Correa (D-CA), wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, urging the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to “state publicly that private legal action under the ADA with respect to websites is unfair and violates basic due process principles in the absence of clear statutory authority and issuance by the department of a final rule establishing website accessibility standards.” The letter urges the Department to “provide guidance and clarity with regard to website accessibility under the … ADA.”
The congressional support for this letter arises on the heels of a recent surge in website accessibility lawsuits against public accommodations in every sector alleging that websites that are not accessible by people with disabilities violate the ADA. In 2017, a number of courts rejected defendants’ attempts to obtain early dismissals of these cases and supermarket chain, Winn Dixie, lost the first trial in a website accessibility case. These decisions opened the proverbial floodgates and resulted in at least 814 federal lawsuits in 2017 about allegedly inaccessible websites, including a number of putative class actions. The federal lawsuit numbers for 2018 will likely be substantially higher as our tracking shows that there were 349 suits just in January and February of 2018. Despite the monumental increase in litigation and urgent need for clear guidance, the DOJ abandoned its rulemaking on website accessibility standards for public accommodations websites at the end of 2017, seven years after it said it would issue regulations on this issue.
With the number of website accessibility lawsuits on the rise and courts allowing most of these cases to move forward, members of Congress are feeling pressure from the business community to take action against this cottage industry of lawsuits. Indeed, as expressed in the letter:
[B]usinesses of every shape and size throughout the country are being threatened with legal action by private plaintiffs for unsubstantiated violations of the ADA. This problem is expanding at a rapid rate since the Internet allows such actions to be filed from anywhere, and there are no restrictions or limitations on making such complaints. The absence of statutory, regulatory, or other controlling language on this issue only fuels the proliferation of these suits since there are no requirements these complaints have to meet. In fact, in most cases these suits are filed for the purpose of reaching a financial settlement and little or nothing to improve website accessibility.
We support the original spirit and intent of the ADA. However, unresolved questions about the applicability of the ADA to websites as well as the [DOJ’s] abandonment of the effort to write a rule defining website accessibility standards, has created a liability hazard that directly affects businesses in our states and the customers they serve.
Although the members of Congress who endorsed the letter acknowledged Congress’ own responsibility to provide legal clarity through the legislative process, they implored the DOJ to provide “even basic direction on compliance” and to “help resolve this situation as soon as possible.”
It is unclear whether this letter will spurn any prompt action from the DOJ. Given the current Administration’s aversion to increased regulation, it is unlikely that the DOJ will re-start its website accessibility rulemaking any time soon. And unlike the Obama Administration which weighed in on the private lawsuits brought against Winn-Dixie, M.I.T. and Harvard University, the Trump Administration declined to file a brief in a website accessibility case last year despite the district court’s invitation. Thus, we will have to wait and see how Attorney General Sessions and the DOJ react to the congressional letter. In the meantime, we expect website accessibility lawsuits will continue to be filed at a record pace throughout the United States.