Courts May Begin to Push Back on ADA Website Claims in 2021

Although many industries were hit hard in 2020, no industry suffered as much as the hospitality industry.shutterstock_1215006901  In one bit of good news however, federal courts have begun to push back on lawsuits brought by serial plaintiffs under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) during the last several months based on those plaintiffs’ lack of standing.  This is a much needed development for hotel owners and operators, who hope that this trend will continue into 2021 and beyond.

In order to assert a claim under Title III of the ADA, a plaintiff must establish that she has standing to assert a claim under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  To establish standing, a plaintiff must establish that she has sustained a direct injury as the result of an alleged wrongdoing, and that the injury is concrete and particularized, not hypothetical or speculative.With the proliferation of ADA website accessibility lawsuits during the last five or so years, more often than not courts have found that a disabled plaintiff’s purported injury due to lack of disability-related information on a hotel’s website conveyed sufficient standing to assert a claim.  In the past several months, however, several federal district court judges have begun to require more of a concrete injury in order for the claim to survive.  Specifically, these courts have required serial plaintiffs to allege an imminent future injury evidenced by their intent to visit the property in question.

One such plaintiff, Deborah Laufer, a disabled individual, filed approximately 300 lawsuits against hotels and other places of lodging in the last year alone.  All of Ms. Laufer’s lawsuits are virtually identical; they allege that the hotel in question violates the ADA (and in particular, 28 C.F.R. § 36.302(e)) because their websites and/or third-party online reservation websites (such as Expedia) fail to sufficiently identify the accessible features of the property.

In May 2020, Ms. Laufer requested a default judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York against one of the hotels she had sued after that hotel had failed to respond to her complaint.  Rather than rule in favor of Ms. Laufer, however, Judge Sannes of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York questioned whether Ms. Laufer had established standing to bring her lawsuit, and refused to enter the default judgment.  Instead, Judge Sannes ordered her to submit a brief demonstrating that she had indeed suffered an injury which would provide her with standing to bring her lawsuit.  The following day, Judge Sannes issued another order for Ms. Laufer to establish that she had standing (e.g., an intent to visit the properties in question) in 27 other virtually identical cases.

Fast forward several months to November, and another federal district judge, this time in District of Maryland, also dismissed a complaint filed by Ms. Laufer for lack of Article III Standing.  In that case, Ms. Laufer filed a complaint against Ft. Mead Hospitality, LLC, the management company of a hotel located in Laurel Maryland.  As with her numerous other Title III cases, she alleged that the hotel company discriminated against her in violation of the ADA because it did not provide sufficient disability-related information on its website or various online reservation websites on which the hotel is listed, and thus she could not determine whether the hotel adequately met her needs.

Ms. Laufer filed a motion seeking a declaratory judgment after Ft. Mead Hospitality failed to respond to the complaint.  Following the lead of the Northern District of New York, the Court denied Ms. Laufer’s motion, finding that she failed to present any plausible facts showing that she would stay at the hotel (or even visit Laurel Maryland) in the future.  Accordingly, the Court held that Ms Laufer failed to establish standing and dismissed the Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  In so doing, the Court relied on Fourth Circuit precedent and found that “assertions of either dignitary” or “informational terms” such as those alleged by Ms. Laufer, were “not sufficiently concrete to render the claim a justiciable case or controversy” without establishing a clear intent to visit the property in question.

Tellingly, while the Court dismissed the complaint without prejudice and gave Laufer leave to amend her complaint, it noted that her serial plaintiff status by stating that she had “filed scores of nearly identically drafted Complaints in several jurisdictions. Mere incantations of some amorphous intent to visit this particular hotel, without more, will not save her claim.”

At the end of the day, it is always a case by case analysis of how hotels will want to proceed after they are hit with one of these types of ADA lawsuits.  In certain situations, hotels may find it easier and/or cheaper to quickly settle these lawsuits.  Other hotels, however, not buttressed by these decisions (especially those in New York and Maryland), may instead now choose to fight them.  Either way, these decisions are an extremely positive development for hotels, as it is a welcome development to see courts taking stances against serial ADA lawsuits, and providing some ammunition for hotels to challenge these claims.

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