H&R Block Case Offers Clear Road Map for Lawsuits
The Justice Department has laid out a set of compliance standards for accessibility on commercial websites. By
Oct. 15, 2014
Businesses should brace for a new crop of so-called “accessibility” lawsuits alleging that their commercial websites fail to comply with federal disabled-access law, lawyers say.
For years, advocates for the disabled have fought to apply the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to e-commerce and mobile apps. Doing so would require small online retailersand other commercial websitesto add captions and transcriptions of multimedia content on the site, provide spoken descriptions of photos, and offer options to navigate online pages without the using a mouse.
In the past, those claims largely were dismissed by several courts. But attorneys who handle disability-access claims say that is about to change potentially exposing hundreds of thousands of e-commerce sites, big and small, to lawsuits.
That is because in March, the Justice Department laid out a set of compliance standards for accessibility on commercial websites as part of its legal agreement with H&R Block Inc., the purveyor of online tax filing and tax software. The agency intervened in a lawsuit brought against
The Justice Department, which enforces the disability-rights act, isn’t expected to post official compliance standards for websites and mobile apps until next year. But lawyers say the H&R Block case offers a clear road map for disability-access claims, and is likely to spark a surge of lawsuits with violations that pertain to websites.
The agreement included the use of captions, text alternatives and audio descriptions, among other tools set out in website accessibility guidelines published by the World Wide Web Consortium, a nonprofit group based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It sent a very powerful message to businesses, as well as the plaintiffs’ bar,” said Minh Vu, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, about the March agreement. “Before this, businesses thought they could sit back and wait for federal guidelines,” she added. She handles disability cases, though she wasn’t involved in the H&R Block case.
Nolan Klein, a Florida lawyer who defends businesses in disability-rights cases, said most small firms likely aren’t aware that they can be sued over accessibility issues with their websites. “There’s been a lot of buzz about websites,” said Mr. Klein, “if that becomes something that plaintiffs go after, it will be huge.”
Adam Saravay, a partner at McCarter & English, said his firm is already seeing a boom in disability-access lawsuits over physical barriers.
He says business owners should talk to their website developers about updating sites with accessibility options, such as screen readers.
Under the current law, businesses can be sued for accessibility violations without notice. “Many businesses find out about compliance issues by getting sued,” said Mr. Klein.
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