A Beverly Hills attorney faces 18 felony charges for allegedly threatening local businesses and nonprofits with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits under false pretenses.
San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin announced the charges, which followed a nine-month investigation. According to Boudin’s office, Berokim sent 17 demand letters for website accessibility violations, threatening victims with litigation if they did not pay to resolve the claims.
Boudin alleges that Berokim had no intent to file ADA cases, and that in one case, Berokim sent a demand letter to a business without actually visiting its website.
False ADA claim letters mean real trouble for small businesses
In a news release announcing the indictment, the District Attorney’s Office claims that Berokim received payments of $950 or more from 14 victims. Organizations that received demand letters allegedly include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Cole Hardware, and City Lights Booksellers & Publishers.
"We continue to take action against unscrupulous attorneys who are exploiting vulnerable small business owners," Boudin said. "These fraudulent lawsuits steal from San Francisco businesses and non-profits while doing nothing to actually promote greater access for disabled Americans.”
“My office is committed to supporting past victims and preventing these crimes in the future. A lawyer misusing the courts to steal thousands of dollars from unsuspecting small business owners is theft and we will prosecute it.”
In statements provided to Law.com, Berokim denied the allegations.
“I stand by what I did on behalf of my clients, including the clients at issue here,” the attorney told the website.
With website accessibility lawsuits rising, false ADA claims may become more common
Under Titles II and III of the ADA, most organizations are legally required to provide accessible digital resources. The law does not permit monetary damages for individual plaintiffs, but some state laws allow for monetary damages under certain circumstances. Additionally, many organizations reach settlements with plaintiffs rather than proceeding through costly federal litigation.
One report from Accessibility.com found that U.S. businesses received 265,000 website accessibility letters in 2020 alone, and the number of accessibility lawsuits has grown substantially over the last decade.
It’s likely that most of those letters are completely legitimate: The vast majority of websites have significant accessibility issues that can affect the experiences of people with disabilities. But fraudulent demand letters can still impact businesses — and cast an unfair light on real complaints.
Web Accessibility Requirements Under the ADA
The ADA does not contain technical standards for websites or other digital content. However, the Justice Department has indicated that Level AA conformance with the internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) may satisfy ADA compliance requirements. According to Accessibility.com, about 54% of ADA demand letters cite specific failures with WCAG success criteria.
Following the recommendations in WCAG can resolve many barriers commonly cited in ADA lawsuits and demand letters:
- Low-contrast text, which may prevent people with vision disabilities from reading content.
- No captions on videos, which may prevent people with hearing disabilities from understanding multimedia.
- Poor keyboard accessibility, which affects people who don’t use a mouse to browse the internet.
- Using color alone to convey information, which may make content confusing for people with low vision or color vision deficiencies.
- Missing alternative text for images, which affects people who use screen readers (software that converts text to audio) and people who browse with images disabled.
Ultimately, accessible web design simply means good web design. When websites have barriers that prevent users from engaging with content, those barriers need to be fixed. WCAG provides a simple framework for finding — and remediating — many serious issues that affect the user experience.
If you’ve received an ADA demand letter, don’t panic
The good news: Many of the most commonly cited issues can be remediated quickly, and the best practices of digital accessibility have enormous benefits for businesses of all sizes. By earning and maintaining conformance with WCAG 2.1 Level AA, you can improve the experiences of all users.
That can translate to improved customer retention rates, better brand awareness, and even enhanced search engine optimization (SEO). Legal compliance is an important consideration, but adopting an accessible approach can provide a powerful return on investment.