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April 21, 2020

ADA Accessibility Lawsuits: Deborah Laufer Continues Onslaught Against Hotels, Motels

As an update to our prior alert, Deborah Laufer has now filed over 200 federal lawsuits in New York, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut against hotels, motels, and other places of lodging since October 2019. The lawsuits allege that the online reservation system for each property—whether directly operated by the defendant or indirectly operated through third-party websites (e.g., Expedia, Orbits, Hotels.com)—is inaccessible to Laufer and otherwise fails to provide certain information concerning accessible features of the property in violation of, among other laws, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Such a flurry of lawsuits against hotels and motels is particularly troubling during this COVID-19 pandemic, as most of these establishments are essentially shut down for business due to the various state stay-at-home orders. This has created an unfortunate situation in which the hotels and motels targeted by Laufer, many of which are family-owned or otherwise small businesses, are forced to either pay unreasonable settlement demands or pay to defend against a federal lawsuit—all while there is little to no revenue coming in the door.

There has been much discussion within the last year by both state and federal lawmakers about taking action to curb these and other ADA accessibility lawsuits. However, to date, no legislation has been passed. In February 2018, the US House of Representatives voted to pass a bill that would amend the ADA to include a requirement that, prior to commencing litigation, businesses be given a notice of deficiencies and a 60-day cure period. The bill ultimately stalled in the US Senate, and no further action has been taken.

More recently, the NYS Senate Standing Committee on Technology and the Internet undertook a review of website accessibility standards in the wake of the flurry of lawsuits alleging violations of Title III of the ADA. The committee has been urged to consider whether to impose a notice and cure requirement similar to the proposed federal legislation and to also consider creating a reasonable set of standards for businesses to follow in respect to website accessibility. Currently, businesses are encouraged to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG); however, compliance with the WCAG often requires businesses to have extensive resources, both financial and otherwise, and many of the family-owned and small businesses targeted in these accessibility lawsuits simply do not have the resources to achieve WCAG compliance.

In the absence of any legislation or regulations promulgated by the US Department of Justice, we recommend that any hotel, motel, or other place of lodging that operates a website or mobile application immediately take steps to ensure its online reservation system is not only accessible to the blind and visually impaired, but that the information available on any online reservation system concerning accessible features of the property is otherwise compliant with federal, state, and local disability laws.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Rob Thorpe, counsel, at rthorpe@barclaydamon.com; Anneliese Aliasso, associate, at aaliasso@barcldaydamon.com; or another member of the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Area or Hotels, Hospitality & Food Service Team.

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