As predicted, the flood of website accessibility lawsuits is continuing in the first months of 2020 after the U.S. Supreme Court late last year declined to weigh in on whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to the websites of places of public accommodation.
The high court’s decision not to hear the Robles v. Dominos Pizza, LLC case was seen as a major victory by disability advocate groups and has encouraged the flood of new lawsuits. The Department of Justice has long held the view that these websites must be accessible to those with disabilities. Without any Supreme Court guidance to the contrary, many trial courts across the country will continue to hold that Title III of the ADA requires places of public accommodation with websites (including retail businesses) to ensure that their websites are accessible to all, including visually impaired individuals using screen-reading software.
In 2019, more than 2,000 new website accessibility lawsuits were filed in federal court. Website accessibility was in the public eye more than ever before, and the proliferation of lawsuits has led to some interesting headlines. In 2019, art galleries in New York City were surprised to be hit with website accessibility suits. The lawsuits were filed systematically in alphabetical order, from A to Z, against each gallery by two visually impaired plaintiffs. Even Beyoncé’s company was sued over allegations that her official website was not accessible to blind or visually impaired people. Meanwhile, in June 2019, the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired publicly issued a report that found that none of the 2020 presidential candidates (Democrat or Republican) had accessible campaign websites.
These interesting headlines have continued into 2020. In January 2020, a deaf man filed a lawsuit against several adult video websites, including Pornhub. The lawsuit alleges that videos on the website lack subtitles, which makes them inaccessible. The case is reminiscent of a 2018 lawsuit against Playboy.com filed by a blind plaintiff which had alleged, among other things, that the images on the site did not contain alternative text descriptions, rendering it incompatible with screen-reading software and therefore inaccessible. The lawsuit against Playboy.com settled in 2019.
In 2020, education, hospitality, banking and retail are likely to continue to be hotly targeted sectors, but the above examples should illustrate that website accessibility lawsuits reach every corner of the web. Many businesses assume, incorrectly, that they do not need to worry about accessibility because their service or product is not marketed toward individuals with disabilities. But with 61 million adults with a disability in the United States, most businesses can be sure that their website reaches people with disabilities. Places of public accommodation that have a customer or public-facing website should ensure that their website is free of barriers to accessibility and compliant with commonly accepted standards of accessibility such as WCAG 2.0 or 2.1, and should seek legal counsel for assistance in drafting accessibility policies or if they receive a demand letter or are sued.