Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs who pursued numerous web accessibility actions under Title III of the ADA are now using website accessibility to test the limits of a different area of law – employment law – California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.
Over the past few years, we have frequently written about the proliferation of demand letters and lawsuits alleging that a business denied a usually blind or vision-impaired individual access to its goods and services because the business’ website was not accessible, in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state laws. One firm that pursued many web accessibility actions under Title III and California’s Unruh Act (including a success in the Bags N’ Baggage case decided in plaintiff’s favor by a California state court) is now going after employers. In recent demand letters and lawsuits, they are alleging that employment websites are not accessible to blind job seekers, in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), California’s corollary to Title I of the ADA.
While this blog, and Seyfarth’s Disability Access Team, are focused on disability access issues affecting places of public accommodation that provide goods and services to the general public (not employees, though many of our team members are employment specialists as well), this emerging litigation trend is worthy of our discussion here because it is an extension of the tsunami of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits pursued under Title III, involving the same technological and other issues, as well as the same plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys. But there is one big difference – the legal standard that applies to employment disability discrimination claims is different from the standard applied to disability discrimination claims brought against public accommodations. Title III is unique from other anti-discrimination statutes in that it requires (with exceptions) businesses take affirmative, proactive measures to ensure individuals with disabilities are afforded equal access to their goods and services. FEHA prohibits discrimination against individuals in employment. It requires employers, upon notice that an employee or applicant for employment requires a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of his or her job, or to apply for employment, to engage in the interactive process to devise such a reasonable accommodation. The employer does not need to provide the employee or applicant’s requested accommodation as long as the accommodation provided is effective.
In the cases filed thus far, such as those by Dominic Martin, Roy Rios, and Abelardo Martinez in Orange County and San Diego Superior Courts in California last week, the plaintiffs argue that they are blind residents of California who want to enter the workforce, attempted to apply using the defendant’s online application, but could not because it was inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. They claim the WAVE tool confirmed the website’s inaccessibility (an automated tool like WAVE, while useful, cannot be relied upon to determine whether a website is accessible or not, let alone useable by an individual with a disability). In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs claim that they twice asked the defendant to remove the barriers and were ignored. Plaintiffs also claim that removing the barriers would take only a few hours (which anyone who has worked in the website accessibility space knows is rarely if ever possible). Plaintiffs allege these requests that defendant remove the barriers were requests for reasonable accommodation, though they were sent by the plaintiff’s attorney and not the actual individual seeking employment; thus possibly perceived as litigation demand letters rather than legitimate requests for reasonable accommodation. The plaintiffs allege that the companies did not respond and that they have a policy to deny disabled individuals equal employment by refusing to remove the barriers on the website. Each plaintiff alleges only a single legal claim for violation of FEHA, even expressly noting he is not asserting claims for violation of any federal law or regulation.
Will these claims find any success in the courts under the applicable law? We will be watching. In the meantime, businesses that have been focusing efforts on consumer-facing websites to mitigate risk under Title III should be aware of this new trend (if you have not already received such a letter).