Municipal Liability Under The ADA For Website Inaccessibility

Executive Summary: Many business owners have faced litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by disabled individuals who claim the businesses' websites are inaccessible. Now, many plaintiffs are turning their attention to municipalities and their websites.

Websites and the Americans with Disabilities Act: The ADA was enacted decades ago, before companies or municipalities even had websites. Yet courts across the country repeatedly have held that the law applies to internet accessibility, resulting in an increasing trend in ADA litigation over websites. Serial plaintiffs visit a multitude of websites and then pick a niche. Some sue art galleries without screen readers that enable the visually impaired to navigate the site, or hotels whose websites do not list their accessible accommodations. Lately, though, these plaintiffs and their attorneys have begun targeting cities, towns, and counties, alleging that their websites are inaccessible, most often for the visually or hearing impaired. Although the ADA offers a plaintiff only injunctive relief, the real damages come in the form of excessive attorneys' fees, which usually make it more prudent to simply settle a case as soon as possible. Yet in New York and California, two of the states with the largest volume of ADA lawsuits, local laws also offer plaintiffs monetary damages.

Implications for Municipalities: As a result, New York, California, and Florida lead the country in volume of website litigation. The trend is spreading to other states. Title II of the ADA prohibits a "public entity" from discriminating against "a qualified individual with a disability," on account of the individual's disability. The ADA regulations state that "a public entity shall take the appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, and members of the public with disabilities are as effective as communications with others." Further, "a public entity shall furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, a service, program, or activity conducted by a public entity." 28 C.F.R. § 35.160(a). Such auxiliary aids and services may include, but are by no means limited to, qualified interpreters on-site or through video remote interpreting services; real-time closed captioning; and closed caption decoders. 28 C.F.R. § 35.104. The specific type of...

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