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California Bill May Limit Web Accessibility Lawsuits and Codify WCAG

Mar 30, 2023

A proposed amendment could dramatically change how California courts address digital accessibility lawsuits. 

Assembly Bill 950 (A.B. 950) would amend California’s Civil and Government Codes to limit statutory damages for certain digital accessibility claims. It also provides a technical definition for web accessibility, which could help businesses test for compliance.

Currently, California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act allows plaintiffs to sue for monetary damages of up to $4,000 per offense. The broad language of the Unruh Act may be responsible for California’s reputation as a hotspot for digital accessibility litigation: In 2022, California was the second top-filing state for web accessibility claims.

How California A.B. 950 May Change Web Accessibility

The Unruh Act isn’t specific to disability status; it also addresses other forms of discrimination while noting that any violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also constitutes a violation of the Unruh Act. 

The ADA does not include technical requirements for digital accessibility, but the Department of Justice (DOJ) has repeatedly reiterated its opinion that the ADA applies to websites

Sponsored by assemblyman Brian Maienschein (D-San Diego), A.B. 950 would put new limits on digital accessibility lawsuits by providing clearer technical definitions. Plaintiffs could only recover damages “if the internet website fails to provide equally effective communication or facilitate full and equal enjoyment of the entity's goods and services to the public"

Additionally, in order for a plaintiff to be entitled to statutory damages, they must prove one of the following: 

  1. The plaintiff “personally encountered a barrier that interfered with their ability to access all or part of the entity's internet website,” or; 
  2. The plaintiff was “unable to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, or enjoy the same services with substantially equivalent ease of use, or to have the same level of privacy and independence as other users who are not disabled.”

On the surface, these changes don’t drastically alter businesses' current obligations under the Unruh Act. However, stricter definitions of online discrimination may prevent some complaints from progressing — and provide businesses with a simple roadmap for compliance.

And while A.B. 950 would create new limitations for plaintiffs, it also introduces new requirements for businesses.

Related: California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and Digital Accessibility: An Overview

California’s A.B. 950 would require WCAG 2.1 Level AA conformance

Many lawsuits filed under the Unruh Act have cited the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for digital accessibility. 

But as the DOJ notes, the ADA doesn’t explicitly require that private businesses follow WCAG. The new bill would establish that requirement for businesses that operate in California.

As the bill states: 

An internet website is presumed to provide equally effective communication for the purpose of an award of minimum statutory damages, as set forth in subdivision (a) of Section 52 or 54.3, if the internet website complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA standard for the accessibility of internet websites established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Accessibility Guidelines Working Group June 5, 2018, or any more stringent subsequent update, revision, or replacement to WCAG published by the W3C. 

Essentially, this means that if a business follows the Level AA standards of the latest version of WCAG, they have a strong defense against any web accessibility claims in California. 

A.B. 950 would also require the California Commission on Disability Access to review web accessibility standards and recommend any appropriate revisions.

Related: Does the Unruh Act Apply to Businesses That Aren't Based in California?

For California businesses, digital accessibility should remain a priority

If passed, A.B. 950 would have a remarkable effect on web accessibility. By codifying WCAG 2.1, it would limit the confusion surrounding U.S. digital accessibility laws.

However, it’s important to remember that digital accessibility is never optional. While the ADA doesn’t discuss WCAG directly, other federal laws cite the standards. 

The federal government’s own Revised Section 508 standards incorporate an earlier version of WCAG (WCAG 2.0) by reference, and the DOJ currently plans to amend Title II of the ADA to include technical standards (which are expected to be nearly identical to WCAG 2.1). 

At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we welcome legislative efforts to improve web accessibility. A.B. 950 could be an important step in the right direction — but businesses shouldn’t wait to adopt WCAG. 

To learn more, download our free eBook: Essential Guide to ADA Compliance for Websites.

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