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SCOTUS Punts On Web Accessibility Tester Case - ADA Lawsuits to Continue

David Gibson

The recent Supreme Court decision on Acheson Hotels vs. Deborah Laufer adressing the question of "tester standing," for ADA web compliance has now left website owners pretty much where they were before. This lack of clarity therefore continues, particularly for businesses navigating the evolving landscape of ADA compliance. And where there is uncertainty, you’ll find lawsuits. So no reprieve of web-related ADA cases is expected.

In terms of context, in recent years we have seen a continuous growth of lawsuits targeting website accessibility and ADA compliance, driven by individuals known as "testers".  These plaintiffs, often with no intention of using the services they sue, seek to uncover technical violations of the ADA and extract settlements. This "litigation flood" has burdened both the court system, and businesses with costly lawsuits. Such businesses hoped the Supreme Court would hear the case and decide that such testers lacked standing to curb such lawsuits.

People with disabilities and accessibility advocates hoped for the opposite. 

The Acheson Hotels Case: A Procedural Maze and a Dose of Drama:

In 2017, Deborah Laufer, a self-proclaimed tester, sued Acheson Hotels for alleged ADA website accessibility violations. The case navigated a curious legal journey, marked by a surprising twist:

  • First Round (District Court): Laufer wins. The court doesn't consider her "tester" status relevant to whether she has the right to sue.
  • Second Round (Court of Appeals): Laufer wins again. The court decides that Laufer's claim of "informational injury" is enough for her to sue.
  • Supreme Court Steps In: The Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, raising hopes for a definitive ruling on whether "testers" can sue under the ADA.
  • Unexpected Twist: Laufer tries to withdraw the lawsuit due to concerns about her lawyer's conduct, casting doubt on her claims and motives.
  • Mootness Debate: Despite Laufer's withdrawal, the Supreme Court considers whether the case is still relevant since the hotel updated its website.=
  • Grand Finale: In December 2023, the Supreme Court dismisses the case as "moot" because Laufer withdrew and the hotel's website was updated.

One of the most pressing questions is whether testers have standing to sue under the ADA. Lower courts are divided on this issue, creating inconsistency and uncertainty for businesses. With the lack of a SCOTUS decision, that will continue to be answered - and likely differently by different courts.

Impacts of SCOTUS dismissal on businesses and advocates

For businesses, this basically means that any respite from web accessibility lawsuits will not happen. Businesses will continue to have their websites visited by testers who will very often find ADA violations. Remember, according to the annual WebAIM Million audit of the top 1 million homepages, which in 2023 showed that 96.3% of websites are not ADA compliant. 

For Individuals with disabilities and their advocates who hoped, however unlikely, that SCOTUS would see the important role of such testers in holding businesses accountable. Still, they came out ahead, as that hope was a long-shot. With this lack of ruling, one can speculate that testing and plaintiff lawsuits will resume and put further pressure on businesses to invest in proper ADA compliance by ensuring their websites follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The WCAG is the international standard for digital accessibility.

Advice for Businesses Who Want to Avoid ADA Website Lawsuits

In the face of legal uncertainty, WCAG compliance serves as the most effective path forward. By embracing accessibility, businesses can navigate the complexities of the ADA landscape with confidence, build a strong brand reputation, and contribute to a more inclusive digital world for everyone.

  • Make digital accessibility of websites, web apps and Saas, and mobile apps a funded priority
  • Properly audit each property to identify WCAG violations. Automated testing tools are notoriously insufficient, as the best can only identify ~30% of WCAG issues. Qualified accessibility consultants must always be used.
  • Remediate each property
  • Train designers, developers, and content contributors to ensure the property maintains its accessibility
  • Test to validate regularly with an impartial third party WCAG auditing company.

Benefits of Digital Accessibility & WCAG Compliance

By adhering to WCAG 2.1, A, and AA standards, businesses can reap numerous benefits:

  • Legal - Reduce legal risk for demand letters, federal ADA lawsuits, and growing state laws.  
  • DEI - Diversity, Equity and digital Inclusion, includes the rights of people with disabilities to access digital as well as physical places of public accommodation. Nothing has highlighted the value of digital access and the disparity of access better than the pandemic, when the world turned inward to the Web for nearly everything. 
  • Opportunity - Not only are there 61M people with a disability in the US, but also consider the 71M Boomers carrying $548 BILLION in discretionary spending and who also share similar challenges with vision, hearing, cognition and fine motor skills.
  • (New for 2024) AIO - The advent of AI technologies like Bing and ChatGPT introduces new considerations for website accessibility. These AI models, while intelligent, encounter barriers akin to those experienced by assistive technologies. This similarity makes WCAG adherence an effective strategy for AIO. This blog post redefines the new term AIO and outlines its new role for website marketers, and this post dives into how AIO can add value to WCAG compliance. MOre about WCAG compliance and optimizing for AI.

Wrap Up

The Supreme Court's decision in Acheson Hotels vs. Laufer leaves the legal landscape of website accessibility shrouded in uncertainty. While the question of "tester standing" remains unanswered, one thing remains clear: businesses cannot afford to wait for a definitive ruling.

With the continued rise of "drive-by lawsuits" and the ever-present threat of legal action, proactive WCAG compliance emerges as the only clear and effective path forward. By embracing WCAG 2.1, A, and AA standards, businesses can navigate the legal complexities with confidence, reap numerous benefits, and contribute to a more inclusive digital world for everyone.