The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a Florida resident can sue a Maryland hotel for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — even though the plaintiff did not actually intend to reserve a room at the hotel.
Laufer v. Naranda Hotels, LLC is a potentially important case for digital accessibility litigation. The plaintiff, Deborah Laufer, has filed hundreds of digital accessibility lawsuits throughout the United States.
Laufer, a self-described compliance “tester,” has disabilities that affect her vision and mobility. According to court documents, she maintains a list of every hotel she sues and revisits online reservation systems before and after filing her complaints.
While Laufer’s tactics may seem extreme, Buffalo News reports that she doesn’t make much money from filing claims. Laufer is part of a group of advocates fighting to force websites to comply with Title III of the ADA.
Laufner’s lawsuit against Naranda Hotels alleged online discrimination
Laufer claims that in July 2020, she visited the websites for two Naranda hotels. Those websites' reservation systems were operated by a third party.
According to the lawsuit, Laufer was unable to find information about the hotel rooms' accessibility through the reservation systems. However, Naranda Hotels filed a motion to dismiss the suit for a lack of standing — the company argued that Laufer did not have clear plans to travel to the hotels in question.
The United States District Court for the District of Maryland agreed with the defendant, ruling that Laufer’s travel plans were too indefinite.
But the Fourth Circuit disagreed, holding that the alleged violations deprived Laufer of the information needed to make a “meaningful choice in selecting her hotels and making her travel plans.”
How Laufer v. Naranda Hotels, LLC Could Affect ADA Lawsuits
If plaintiffs can file lawsuits for “informational injury,” web accessibility testers who have disabilities may have the standing to sue a broad number of organizations — regardless of whether those plaintiffs have intentions to use certain products or services.
The Fourth Circuit’s ruling sets a precedent in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Other district courts are bound by other precedents, which may have more strict definitions of injury. That may encourage potential plaintiffs to file lawsuits in certain states.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court may weigh in. However, pending a Supreme Court decision, website testers may file lawsuits alleging informational injuries within the Fourth Circuit.
Understanding the Costs of an ADA Website Claim
Every organization has a responsibility to provide accessible web content for users with disabilities. Fighting a web accessibility claim can be costly — and even in successful defenses, organizations must typically pay for their own legal expenses.
For businesses, there’s a clear lesson: The best defense against a web accessibility claim is a compliant website.
The ADA does not include technical criteria for digital accessibility, but the DOJ recommends testing content against the Level AA criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for accessibility.
WCAG addresses many of the most common web accessibility barriers cited in ADA lawsuits, including:
- Missing alternative text (also called alt text) for images and other non-text elements, which impacts people who cannot perceive content visually.
- Low-contrast text, which may be unreadable for some people with vision disabilities.
- Missing form labels and instructions, which can make forms difficult to use for people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT).
- Keyboard accessibility issues, which impact users who use a keyboard alone (without a mouse) to access the internet.
Businesses should also review their content to ensure that accessibility-related information is available for users — for example, hotels should identify the accessibility features of lodging options.
Making a Commitment to Users with Disabilities
When digital products are designed with accessibility in mind, everyone benefits. The business case for accessibility is strong: Accessible websites tend to perform better in search engine results, and customers are more likely to support brands that showcase their inclusive values.