On December 5, 2023, the United States Supreme Court decided the matter of Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer. The primary issue in Laufer was whether a self-appointed Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) “tester” had Article III standing to sue a hotel chain for its alleged failure to provide disability accessibility information on its website, even if she lacked any intention of staying at one of their hotels. As our readers are aware, Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability “in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods [and] services . . . of any place of public accommodation.”
On August 10, 2023, the Supreme Court initially denied Ms. Laufer’s request to dismiss as moot her allegations (yes, her own) regarding the lack of accessibility information on the hotel chain’s website. Laufer is noteworthy not only because the Supreme Court denied a party’s request to dismiss its own claims, but, more importantly, because it goes to a critical and prevalent issue – the standing of website accessibility testers. Many businesses are familiar with the type of ADA demand letter that gave rise to Ms. Laufer’s lawsuit. Typically, a “tester” – with no intent of ever setting foot on a business’s physical premises – claims a lack of accommodation in violation of the ADA after browsing a website and demands monetary and/or injunctive relief. Ms. Laufer quickly realized that, with the ascension of her lawsuit to the Country’s highest court, she placed the interests (read: financial wellbeing) of countless “testers” nationwide at risk. Despite her efforts, and much to her chagrin, the Supreme Court signaled that it might evaluate the merits of her lawsuit. On December 5, 2023, however, the Supreme Court ultimately decided that the matter was moot.
A Brief Background on the Laufer Website ADA Lawsuit
Ms. Deborah Laufer is a serial plaintiff whose mobility and eyesight are impaired. She calls herself a “tester” and regularly visits business websites to “test” whether such businesses accommodate disabled individuals. On September 24, 2020, Ms. Laufer filed a lawsuit against Acheson Hotels alleging violations of the ADA after interacting with its website. Specifically, Ms. Laufer claimed that she visited two Acheson Hotel websites and could not find information regarding ADA accessibility at the physical hotels. Acheson Hotels moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of standing, explaining that Ms. Laufer had no intention of staying at its hotels. The district court agreed and dismissed Ms. Laufer’s lawsuit for failure to demonstrate an injury in fact.
Ms. Laufer appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which reversed the district court decision. The First Circuit held that, while feelings of shame alone do not confer standing, her “feelings of frustration [and] humiliation,” when coupled with the informational injury she experienced, rise to the level of adverse effects that constitute injury in fact. On November 4, 2022, Acheson petitioned the Supreme Court to review the First Circuit’s ruling. On March 27, 2023, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Ms. Laufer’s Attempt to Dismiss Her Website ADA Lawsuit?
Ms. Laufer’s attempt to dismiss her district court complaint with prejudice while her Supreme Court matter was pending was certainly unusual. She then filed a brief and letter with the Supreme Court stating that her claims were now moot. Continuing this bizarre pattern, the Defendant, Acheson Hotels, opposed the lawsuit’s dismissal.
In her brief, Ms. Laufer informed the Supreme Court that an attorney who had represented her in in an unrelated ADA Title III case had recently been suspended from the practice of law. She claimed that she did not want “the allegations of misconduct against” her former attorney in an unrelated matter to “distract from the merits of her ADA claims and everything she has sought to achieve for persons with disabilities like herself.” In its opposition, Acheson Hotels claimed that Ms. Laufer was “abandoning her case to pave the way for Laufer and similar plaintiffs to resume their campaign of extortionate ADA suits against unwitting small businesses without the hindrance of an adverse ruling from this Court.” Ms. Laufer’s claims as to her sudden and dramatic change in sentiment are certainly dubious. Perhaps Ms. Laufer’s fervor got the best of her. In fact, before she knew it, she had put the entire lifeblood and purpose of testers nationwide at risk.
What is certain is that fortune favored Ms. Laufer when the Supreme Court finally granted her request to have the matter deemed moot. It now appears that interested parties will have to wait for another opportunity for the Supreme Court to once and for all settle whether an ADA “tester” has Article III standing to sue for failure to provide disability accessibility information on a website, even if he/she lacks any intention of visiting the underlying place of public accommodation.
Why Did the Laufer Lawsuit Matter to your Business?
Many businesses that operate websites are all too familiar with receiving demand letters that allege violations of the ADA following a disabled claimant’s visit to a website. Some serial ADA plaintiffs can send hundreds of boilerplate letters out after quick visits to websites, demanding money and remedial website changes. In Laufer, the Supreme Court had the chance to ultimately decide that testers lack standing to sue under the ADA if they never intended to utilize the service or purchase the product advertised on a website. This would have wiped out a large percentage of website ADA claims nationwide. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court eventually vacated the matter as moot. However, the Court will likely address the issue in a future case.
In the interim, because the law is unsettled, website operators must remain aware of applicable ADA requirements, as well as how to ensure accessibility compliance. To safeguard your business, it is necessary to provide appropriate accommodations to all customers. To ensure compliance and prevent ADA website liability, it is essential that you consult with experienced attorneys. The attorneys at Klein Moynihan Turco regularly defend businesses whose websites have been targeted for alleged lack of disability accommodation.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic or require defense in connection with issues involving website accessibility, please e-mail us at email@example.com or call us at (212) 246-0900.
The material contained herein is provided for informational purposes only and is not legal advice, nor is it a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney. Each situation is unique, and you should not act or rely on any information contained herein without seeking the advice of an experienced attorney.
*This article was originally published when Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer was still pending before the Supreme Court. This article has since been modified to reflect the Supreme Court’s December 5, 2023 decision.
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