The U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out a lower court’s decision in Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer, avoiding a decision on whether Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “testers" can sue businesses for alleged web accessibility issues.
Testers are people with disabilities who file ADA lawsuits for alleged digital accessibility issues. In some cases, testers do not actually intend to use the company’s products or services.
In the case at hand, self-appointed ADA tester Deborah Laufer sued Acheson Hotels, LLC, alleging that the hotel’s online reservation services did not provide accessibility information about its hotels. Laufer has filed hundreds of lawsuits over the past several years against businesses in the hospitality industry.
Acheson Hotels asked the Supreme Court to consider the case, arguing that Laufer has no standing to sue, given that she had no intention to visit their hotels. But on December 5th, 2023, the Court determined that Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufner was moot (we’ll discuss the legal importance of mootness in a moment).
Acheson hoped to establish a precedent that ADA testers cannot file lawsuits unless they’re directly affected by discrimination. However, the Court avoided addressing that issue — at least, for the time being. Here’s why.
Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer: A Quick Overview
For the Supreme Court, the case presented a novel issue: Both parties in Laufner’s lawsuit have agreed that the underlying controversy had been resolved. Laufer had dropped her lawsuit, but Acheson Hotels still wanted the Court to consider whether the plaintiff had standing.
A lawsuit is moot when its central conflict has reached a resolution. That happened when Laufer dropped her case.
And while the Supreme Court frequently addresses issues of standing (whether or not a case has grounds to proceed), the Court can address issues of mootness and standing in any order it chooses.
"...while the Court is sensitive to Acheson’s concern about litigants manipulating this Court’s jurisdiction, the Court is not convinced that Laufer abandoned her case in an effort to evade the Court’s review,” Supreme Court Justice Amy Barrett wrote in the decision (link opens a PDF).
In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas implied that if the Court addressed the core issue of the case, he would rule that Laufner did not have standing.
What the Supreme Court’s Decision Means for Web Accessibility
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility is not a law firm, and we cannot provide legal advice. We rarely address legal topics on this blog; we discuss the essential concepts of digital compliance, but we try to stay away from complex discussions of legal terminology.
However, as digital accessibility experts, we know that high-visibility Supreme Court cases usually have an impact on the accessibility landscape. The Court’s decision in Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer changes nothing about the law — but the Justices have shown that they’re open to questions about the legal standing of ADA testers.
That might prevent some ADA testers from bringing lawsuits, particularly against high-profile defendants with strong legal teams.
But as we’ve discussed in other articles, fraudulent or spurious ADA lawsuits are probably quite rare. The simple fact is that most websites have serious accessibility issues. ADA plaintiffs don’t need to spend much time looking for offenders.
With the number of web accessibility lawsuits rising each year, it’s never been more important to prioritize inclusive design. The Justice Department is poised to establish technical requirements for compliance with ADA Title II (which applies to government agencies), and those requirements will be useful for proving compliance with Title III (which applies to private businesses).
Forming a Strategy for Digital Accessibility Compliance
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide the best path for digital compliance. The Justice Department’s new requirements will probably incorporate WCAG Level A/AA by reference — and if you’re testing content against WCAG, you’re in a strong position to defend against (and avoid) ADA lawsuits.
To learn more, read about five ways to self-check the accessibility of a website. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility also provides free automated graded reports, which test content against WCAG using powerful artificial intelligence (A.I.).
If you have specific questions about compliance, we’re here to help. Send us a message to connect with an expert.