NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) – A lawyer accused by his opponents of exploiting the blind to recover millions of dollars from shakedown lawsuits is now representing a deaf man who has sued a dozen media outlets.
Personal injury lawyer C.K. Lee has decided to target yet another industry over the accessibility of its websites, an ever-growing area of practice for plaintiffs attorneys. Since April, he’s filed 12 lawsuits against various media outlets, including Barstool Sports, BET Interactive and Gannett Satellite Information Network.
The lawsuits, brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act, allege the websites belonging to these corporate entities are not accessible to the deaf because their videos don’t contain closed captioning. Rather than fight, defendants sued earlier this year settled.
“Just as buildings without ramps bar people who use wheelchairs, video content without captions excludes deaf and hard of hearing individuals,” Lee’s lawsuits say.
“Despite readily available accessible technology, such as the technology in use at other heavily trafficked websites, which makes use of closed captioning for hearing impaired individuals, such as YouTube and Netflix, Defendant has chosen to post videos without closed captioning that are inaccessible to deaf and hard of hearing individuals.”
Lee’s firm, the Lee Litigation Group, is one of the most active filers of class action lawsuits in the country, though its cases routinely settle in less than a year and before a class is ever certified.
Most defendants don’t care to fight – paying off the named plaintiff before a class is certified can keep both legal fees and settlement costs down while avoiding an adverse verdict at trial.
Lee’s practice has been active in suing companies on behalf of the blind because their websites don’t comply with the ADA, filing approximately 150 lawsuits in New York federal courts.
New York City is one of the more popular jurisdictions for these types of lawsuits, as are California, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Plaintiffs can usually only recover $500 in each case, but attorneys use the same plaintiffs many times in their lawsuits.
In fact, Lee has used a blind man named Derrick Anderson in 24 lawsuits. Their partnership was the subject of a recent New York Post article published after one company filed its opposition to being sued.
“(T)his case has nothing to do with the purported ‘harm’ Plaintiff suffered by not being able to make a reservation, as Mr. Anderson is a serial plaintiff that is profiting off of the uncertainty in the law and the settlements derived as a result,” attorneys for Sela Group Hotel wrote in an Oct. 6 motion to dismiss.
“Plaintiff’s counsel, on the other hand, has undoubtedly recovered millions of dollars from the approximately 140 similar ADA complaints commenced since May 26, 2015.
“Make no mistake, this case is about extracting settlements and capitalizing on the uncertainty in the laws. Every business that has a website is exposed to this shakedown.”
That “shakedown” has spread to the press. Lee’s deaf client is Phillip Sullivan Jr. His complaints specify the videos he attempted to watch that did not feature closed captioning.
Sullivan and Lee’s first round of lawsuits was filed April 7-May 4 against Conde Nast Entertainment, Prometheus Global Media, Vox Media, The Slate Group, Daily News LP and American City Business Journals.
Each of those cases settled before the defendant ever filed a motion to dismiss.
So Sullivan and Lee began a second round on Sept. 29, suing Sightline Media Group, Barstool Sports, BET Interactive Gannett Satellite Information Network, WP Company and BH Media Group in the next month.
Those companies have yet to file an answer in court and attorneys for four of them did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“We’ve seen restaurants, retailers and colleges hit with these website lawsuits,” said Tom Stebbins, the executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York.
“Now the same lawyers are going after the media? Filing a flurry of lawsuits to cash in on quick settlements is not going to increase access for the disabled.”
Such lawsuits have become popular in recent years as the Department of Justice has delayed formal regulations. Those regulations, which will determine how to make a website compliant with the ADA, were first announced in 2010 but won’t be issued until next year, at the earliest.
Earlier this year, a blind plaintiff scored a victory in the first trial over website accessibility under the ADA. The judge also ordered Winn-Dixie to update its site, and the company has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
In the Winn-Dixie case, Florida federal judge Robert Scola ruled that the company’s website is heavily integrated with the company’s physical store locations, making it subject to the ADA.
Months after the victory, Scola approved plaintiffs attorneys’ request for more than $105,000 in fees.
“Lawyers have turned this litigation into a cottage industry,” Stebbins said. “The federal government needs to put a stop to it, return the law to its worthy intentions, and come up with clear guidelines for how the ADA applies to the internet.”
That uncertainty has led to the vast amount of settlements. A month after the New York Post article about Lee was published, he and Sela Group Hotel reached a confidential agreement.
Earlier, he had defended his rights to represent Anderson in the string of cases.
“By arguing that the ADA does not apply to websites, Defendant seeks to impose more isolation, exclusion and frustration to the lives of blind individuals who already lead a challenged and compromised existence,” Lee wrote in response to Sela Group’s motion to dismiss.
“The exclusion of the blind from the freedom that websites provide to sighted people in the analog world is as egregious as a staircase that precludes a wheelchaired individual from physical access.”
From Legal Newsline: Reach editor John O’Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org.