WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The Department of Justice has withdrawn proposed rules for accessible websites of public accommodations and state and local governments, in addition to non-fixed equipment and furnishings used in public places.
The decision could have a ripple-effect throughout the legal system as businesses face an onslaught from class action lawyers suing on behalf of blind individuals who claim corporate websites aren't accessible to them.
Minh Vu, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Washington, D.C., pointed out that absent new regulations, it may be up to the courts to sort out this issue.
“The absence of regulations means that the law in this area will be created over the next several years through a patchwork of judicial decisions,” she said. “Those decisions will very likely be inconsistent across judicial circuits on some key issues.”
In the meantime, Vu noted that plaintiffs will take advantage of the uncertainty and file more lawsuits.
The DOJ began a rule-making process eight years ago to issue new regulations. However, in July, it placed these rules on an “inactive list” and on Dec. 26 they were withdrawn.
One court has already have chimed in on the topic. In June, a Florida federal judge ruled for a blind man who has filed nearly 70 lawsuits alleging that various companies’ websites violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Judge Robert Scola, of the Southern District of Florida, decided that Winn-Dixie’s website is heavily integrated with the company’s physical store locations, making it subject to the ADA. His decision will require the company to update its site.
Attorneys are seeking $100,000.
In his ruling, Scola noted that Winn-Dixie’s website is inaccessible to visually impaired individuals who must use screen reader software.
That case is on appeal, and Vu noted that it is just one district court decision.
“That said, because it happens to be the only federal website accessibility lawsuit that was litigated to judgment so far, it will continue to be viewed as a significant case,” she opined.
With regard to the withdrawal of the rulemaking about non-fixed equipment and furniture, DOJ said that it is “reevaluating whether regulation of the accessibility of non-fixed equipment and furniture is necessary and appropriate.”
Going forward, the lack of regulatory guidance also could lead to additional cases on dockets nationwide.
“We expect the number of website accessibility cases to continue to increase for at least another few years, unless Congress decides to intervene,” Vu concluded.