One Atlanta resident has filed over a hundred lawsuits against businesses in Georgia and Florida in the past 10 years. Another has sued 120 different Atlanta-area businesses just since 2015. What do these lawsuits have in common? In each case, the plaintiff suffers from a physical disability and claims that the business has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by preventing the plaintiff access to the business establishment.
These plaintiffs are not alone. Hundreds of plaintiffs have filed similar accessibility-based suits across the country. Experts say these suits already number in the thousands, and will only become more prevalent as time goes on. So how does the ADA apply to your business, and what can you do to protect your business against an ADA claim?
What is the ADA, and to whom does it apply?
In 1990, Congress passed the ADA in an attempt to eliminate a variety of barriers, both literal and figurative, that people with disabilities face every day. One section of the ADA, Title III, requires businesses that operate “public accommodations” to not discriminate against the disabled. In particular, the ADA requires the proprietors of such businesses to remove “architectural barriers” and “communication carriers” that prevent the disabled from equally enjoying the accommodations, if the removal of the those barriers is “readily achievable.”
So what is a “public accommodation”? A public accommodation is any private business that provides goods or services to the public. It includes restaurants, theaters, hotels, and any type of shopping center. But the statute is not limited just to retail-type establishments. It also includes professional offices, such as law offices and medical practices, as well as any other “service establishment.” Even a publicly-accessible website may be a public accommodation to which the ADA applies (more on that below). In short, if members of the public are coming to your property (or website) to transact any sort of business, you should expect to be subject to the ADA.
Importantly, there is no exception for accommodations that were built before the ADA became law. All public accommodations must comply with the ADA (though the requirements for compliance may differ based on various factors discussed below).
What does the ADA require?
Again, the ADA requires businesses to remove any barriers that would prevent a person with disabilities from enjoying a public accommodation if removal of the barrier is “readily achievable.” The United States Department of Justice (DOJ), which is charged with enforcing the ADA, publishes a set of standards called the “ADA Standards for Accessible Design” (the “Standards”) which provide, in minute detail, guidance for the design of public accommodations. The Standards cover everything from the size and location of wheelchair-accessible parking spaces to the height of toilet-paper dispensers.
Newly constructed facilities, first occupied on or after January 26, 1993, must meet or exceed the minimum requirements of the DOJ’s Standards. If any part of an existing facility has been altered or renovated since January 1992, it too must comply with the Standards.
For older facilities, the law is trickier. If the public accommodation pre-dates the ADA, the DOJ Standards still act as a guide, but a property owner does not have to meet those Standards unless doing so is “readily achievable.” Whether meeting a given Standard is readily achievable depends both on the cost of the alteration and the resources of the property owner. Bigger, wealthier property owners will be expected to make changes that smaller property owners are not. In the end, whether a change is “readily achievable” can only be decided on a case-by-case basis, and this fact gives rise to much litigation.
We noted above that the ADA’s definition of a “barrier” includes “communication barriers” as well as “architectural barriers.” Because of this, a new generation of ADA plaintiffs claim that a business’s website is also a public accommodation and must comply with the ADA. In particular, these plaintiffs claim that a business’s website be reasonably accessible to the blind, such as by providing means to navigate the site through sound instead of by sight. Neither the ADA nor the DOJ Standards addresses websites expressly, and the federal courts are divided on the questions of whether, and how, the ADA should apply. (In the absence of express federal guidance some courts assess website accessibility by reference to the independently-developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG)). Nevertheless, more than a thousand such suits were filed in 2018 alone.
What if I am merely a tenant in a building owned by someone else?
By its own terms, the ADA applies to “any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.” So when a business owner leases space for its business, both the business and the business’s landlord are liable for violations of the ADA inside the space leased by the tenant-business. In contrast, when a violation is in a common area of a multi-tenant commercial building, such as a parking lot or an elevator, the courts generally agree that any ADA violations are the responsibility of the landlord alone.
How do these lawsuits work?
The ADA authorizes any person who has been discriminated against as a result of a violation of Title III to sue the business responsible for the violation in federal court to have the barrier removed. The ADA primarily allows the plaintiff to obtain an injunction – that is, a court order – requiring the offending property owner to remove any barrier that violates the ADA. Business owners are often shocked to discover that they have been sued for a laundry list of alleged violations. While these violations may seem minor, if a public accommodation does not meet the ADA, the law is clear that a patron may seek an injunction to bring the premises into compliance.
The statute does not provide for the plaintiff to receive monetary damages to compensate for the alleged discrimination itself, but it does allow the plaintiff, if successful, to recoup any reasonable legal fees and expenses that he incurred in the process of bringing the suit. And that, as they say, is the rub. The ADA does not require a potential plaintiff to give a business owner any prior notice before filing suit. So by the time the alleged offender is aware that anyone is claiming there is a problem, the plaintiff has already incurred legal fees, court costs, and possibly hired an expert in ADA compliance. All of these expenses are recoverable from the business owner if the plaintiff is successful in court.
None of this is to say that there is no defense to an ADA complaint. For example, it is not uncommon for a plaintiff to complain about a condition that is not, in fact, a barrier to entry. And even if a given condition would be a violation of the current Standards, it may be that the building pre-dates the ADA and removing the offending condition is not “readily achievable.” On rare occasions, a plaintiff’s claims are downright fraudulent. For example, the plaintiff may have never set foot in the defendant’s establishment and, even if he did, he may have no plans to ever return. In short, it is possible to defeat an ADA claim on its merits.
But for every hour a business spends litigating the merits of a claim, the plaintiff’s expenses accumulate and increase the potential liability to the defendant. For this reason, many business owners who are sued under the ADA seek to negotiate a quick settlement with the plaintiff rather than fight it out in court. In practice, very few of these claims go all the way to a trial.
If this process does not strike you as being especially fair to the accused business owner, you are not alone. The recent surge in ADA accessibility suits has caused some rumblings for reform in Congress. While at least one bill has been introduced to amend Title III, no such bill has passed and the statute will stay the same for the foreseeable future.
What can a business owner do?
Some industry observers suggest that if you maintain a “public accommodation” it is just a matter of time before you are the target of an ADA suit. Given that, what can a diligent business owner do now, before she is sued, to put her business in the best position to prevent or defend against a future claim?
- First, check your insurance coverage. Many liability policies cover ADA claims, but just as many don’t. If you are not sure whether your policy covers ADA claims, talk with your insurance broker.
- Second, hire a consultant knowledgeable in the ADA and disability issues to audit your business now, before you are the target of a lawsuit, to help identify any areas that might give rise to a claim later on and, if feasible, remedy them before a claim is brought. If you are sued, you will likely have to hire one of these professionals to evaluate the plaintiff’s claims and advise you about where you may have compliance issues, at a time when you are also incurring liability to the plaintiff for his or her legal expenses, court costs and expert fees – so hiring a compliance consultant before you are sued may ultimately be more economical for your business in the long run.
In the end, if you are sued, always contact your lawyer immediately. Accessibility claims are technical by their very nature, so seeking professional guidance as early as possible is essential.
If you need assistance in assessing your business’s responsibilities under the ADA or responding to a claim that you have violated the ADA, please contact Ben Byrd at firstname.lastname@example.org or (770) 399-9500 to discuss further.