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Lawsuits Seek Captions on Websites – Is This Good News Or Not?

In Legal Updates, News by ALDA News

ADA logoThis is the first in a four part series on the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the problems with lawsuit abuse. 

In mid-June, I learned about lawsuits filed against medical clinics in the Silicon Valley area claiming that those clinics failed to caption their online videos. As a staunch advocate for captioning, I should have been excited and delighted to read this story. But instead, I’m concerned. I’m going to explain why I think all of us should be concerned, but it will take several posts to do that.

There are a number of things I agree with. The online videos should be captioned. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that. And I firmly believe that the ADA is a valuable tool to open doors for people with disabilities, and that lawsuit aimed at implementing that law should be encouraged.

Like any tool, though, the ADA can be abused by lawsuits that may generate revenue for the lawyers (and sometimes for clients), but which do not actually open any doors for people with disabilities. Common characteristics of lawsuits like that – the “fingerprints,” if you will, of abusive ADA lawsuits – are 1) many essentially identical actions filed against a number of different businesses, 2) by one or a small handful of plaintiffs and by the same attorneys, and 3) no indication that the barriers to access cited in the lawsuits are actually fixed. For lack of a better term, those lawyers who abuse the ADA are often termed “trolls.”

For years, most of the ADA “troll” cases involved people in wheelchairs suing over physical or architectural accessibility. Suits would be filed, and the attorneys would then demand a certain amount of money to simply go away. The internet opened up new horizons in ADA litigation as well as in the rest of life. Thousands of lawsuits claiming that websites are not accessible have been filed annually, mostly in the name of blind or limited-vision individuals.

These are not “frivolous” suits in the sense that they have no merit. What sets these lawsuits apart is that they are filed in such enormous volume that the attorneys involved could not possibly represent the plaintiffs properly in any one of them. That fact suggests that the attorneys have no intention of taking the cases to a conclusion that expands access for people with disabilities, but only hope to extract a quick settlement.

The lawsuits referenced in the attached article have a worrisome number of “troll” characteristics. Most significantly, the attorneys involved are notorious ADA “trolls.” The firm has filed almost 1,000 ADA lawsuits so far this year just in Northern California. It’s also a bit of a stretch to imagine why a person employed fulltime in Seattle would really be considering medical treatment in California when such treatment is readily available in Seattle. It’s also concerning that the attorney quoted in the articles refers only to the dollar amounts expected in settlement, and not to any improvement in accessibility.

Captioning cases have not, in the past, attracted the attention of the ADA “trolls,” although there is one conspicuous exception. I hope the cases referenced in this article aren’t an indication that this will become a popular subject for the “trolls.”

In future posts, I’ll discuss the components of this problem, beginning with an explanation of ADA “troll” lawsuits work and the damage those lawsuits do to people with disabilities in general. I’ll take a look at how courts and legislatures have or might respond. Finally, I’ll look at how legitimate advocacy organizations like ALDA strive to avoid the “troll” label, and how we might contribute constructively to improving the situation.

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