Rochester Chamber, CDR Raise Awareness of Website Accessibility and Lawsuits

Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Disability Rights (CDR) have partnered to raise awareness of a recent rash of lawsuits targeting businesses over accessibility of their websites. These actions, brought by a small number of plaintiffs in the New York City area, have recently focused on wineries and other small businesses, seeking five-figure settlements without regard to addressing the larger issue of educating the public about accessibility compliance.

CDR President and CEO Bruce Darling said, “The Center for Disability Rights is committed to making our communities more accessible and inclusive, and to enforcing Disability Rights laws. However, we do not support disingenuous lawsuits alleging inaccessibility which result in settlements that do not address the underlying accessibility issues. We are proud to work with Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce to educate businesses about accessibility and to help businesses to become compliant.”

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” The definition of “discrimination” under the statute incorporates a requirement that reasonable accommodations and auxiliary aids or services be provided to individuals with disabilities.

Nixon Peabody LLP attorneys in Rochester and across its other offices have assisted clients in responding to demand letters and litigation related to alleged ADA and state law violations of website accessibility. The law firm formulates responses based on a client’s specific circumstances and applicable defenses.

Nixon Peabody Counsel Todd Shinaman said, “While the ADA does not expressly define a commercial website as a place of public accommodation, numerous courts have held that a website is a place of public accommodation because websites provide the public access to a company’s goods or services. While some courts have held that Title III’s accessibility requirements do not apply to websites that have no nexus to a physical place of accommodation, such as a brick and mortar store, several federal district courts in the Second Circuit, which includes New York, have refused to dismiss Title III cases on that basis.”

Fox Run Vineyards added an accessibility statement and started to make compliance changes to its website when owners first learned about ADA-related lawsuits in November 2018. In February of this year, a lawsuit was brought against Fox Run for non-compliance.

Fox Run Vineyards President and Co-owner Scott Osborn said, “We should educate when we regulate. A lawsuit is the wrong way to go about it. In my opinion, before suing my company, I believe I should have been sent a letter describing in detail all the ways my site was not in compliance and instructions on how to get my site functional. That would have been the fair and proper thing to do and would have caused us to act. We are now working on a brand-new website and hope to be compliant soon.”

Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce is working with the Center for Disability Rights, the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, and other advocacy partners to combat abusive ADA lawsuits while also educating business owners about the importance of website compliance and informing lawmakers about the lack of clarity in the law.

Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York Public Affairs Manager Adam Morey said, “This important civil rights law, meant to ensure access for all, is being exploited by predatory lawyers to generate fees. All that money wasted on court costs and attorney’s fees would be better spent upgrading websites and finalizing industry standards. There needs to be clear guidelines for how the ADA applies to the Internet. As it stands now, businesses and nonprofit institutions of all sizes can be sued without any real notice of how they are supposed to comply with the law. It is time for public officials to clarify how the law applies to the Internet and guide businesses to compliance.”

Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Duffy said, “Rochester Chamber believes that education and information go further than threats and intimidation in ensuring website access for the visually impaired and others with disabilities. Efforts should be directed toward resolving the underlying barriers to access rather than looking to make a quick buck. We encourage businesses to check the accessibility of their websites and make appropriate changes if necessary. If a business finds itself the target of a lawsuit, we recommend seeking legal counsel rather than rushing to settle. Rochester Chamber is working with its counterparts to advocate fair and effective ways to promote accessible websites while not costing small businesses tens of thousands of dollars in settlements and legal fees.”

Businesses with questions about website ADA accessibility may contact the Center for Disability Rights at www.cdrnys.org or their website designers. Those who wish to join Rochester Chamber advocacy efforts may contact Marc Cohen at Marc.Cohen@GreaterRochesterChamber.com.

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