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U.S. Supreme Court Will Determine Whether ADA Testers Can Sue

Apr 26, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether people with disabilities can file lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — whether or not the plaintiffs intend to actually use a company’s products or services. 

The case, Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Deborah Laufer, may have enormous implications for ADA litigation. In the petition for Supreme Court review, the defendant poses the following question:

Does a self-appointed Americans with Disabilities Act “tester” have Article III standing to challenge a place of public accommodation’s failure to provide disability accessibility information on its website, even if she lacks any intention of visiting that place of public accommodation? 

Plaintiff Deborah Laufer has filed hundreds of lawsuits over the past several years against businesses in the hospitality industry. 

“As a tester, I visit hotel online reservation services to ascertain whether they are in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act,” Laufer stated in court filings. “In the event that they are not, I request that a lawsuit be filed to bring the website into compliance with the ADA so that I and other disabled persons can use it.” 

Lower courts have disagreed about whether “testers" can bring ADA lawsuits

Acheson Hotels is requesting Supreme Court review following an October decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The First Circuit has jurisdiction over the appeals from federal courts in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island. 

In Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Deborah Laufer, the First Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that Laufer suffered an “injury in fact,” regardless of whether she intended to travel to one of the hotel’s locations.

Laufer alleged that Acheson Hotels' online reservation system did not provide information about accessible rooms. She acknowledges that she visited the hotels' websites to test them, but argues that her motive is irrelevant. 

"[...] One can readily find that a disabled person’s encounter with violations of the ADA are real world harms by reviewing the plain language in the findings and purposes set forth by Congress,” Laufer’s counsel wrote in their brief in opposition, referring to the text of the ADA.

Related: Why More Businesses Are Facing Multiple ADA Website Lawsuits

The Supreme Court’s decision could affect the web accessibility landscape

Circuit courts have disagreed as to whether testers suffer “injuries" simply by encountering ADA violations.

But some accessibility testers believe that their work improves ADA compliance, and if the Supreme Court rules against Laufer, businesses may have less of an incentive to provide reasonable accommodations to their customers.

“Without civil rights advocates such as this plaintiff, there would be no enforcement of the ADA,” Laufer’s counsel wrote. 

However, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), businesses must ensure that their websites and other digital materials are ADA compliant. If ADA testers cannot file lawsuits, this won’t change — businesses may still face lawsuits from customers who have encountered discrimination. 

And if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Laufer, the number of ADA lawsuits may increase dramatically. 

Related: 5 Web Accessibility Barriers Frequently Cited in ADA Lawsuits

Businesses should take steps to ensure ADA compliance

Regardless of the outcome of Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Deborah Laufer, every organization has a responsibility to accommodate customers with disabilities. 

An accessible website can be an important asset, as the best practices of accessibility can improve search engine optimization (SEO) and enhance experiences for every user. 

While Title III of the ADA doesn’t contain technical standards for digital content, the DOJ recommends testing content against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level AA standards. 

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

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