Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), any person with a disability has the right to file a lawsuit in Federal court and obtain a court order to stop ADA violations. The Justice Department (also known as the Department of Justice or DOJ) can also launch investigations and file lawsuits in Federal court under certain circumstances.
Below, we’ll explain the basics of ADA lawsuits — and outline a few major benefits of website accessibility. To determine whether your site complies with the ADA, download our free Essential Guide to ADA Compliance for Websites.
Do individual plaintiffs profit off of web accessibility lawsuits?
The ADA doesn’t permit monetary damages for individual plaintiffs. However, some state laws may allow for monetary damages in certain circumstances. California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, for example, allows for monetary damages of $4,000 per offense.
Of course, many businesses settle ADA lawsuits, which can result in direct payouts to plaintiffs. Fighting a lawsuit can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in some circumstances. By one estimate, the average ADA settlement costs as much as $14,000, which is certainly much less than the potential costs of litigation.
Additionally, the ADA allows winning plaintiffs to recover legal expenses from businesses, which can be substantial: Protracted litigation can cost upwards of $100,000 — another good reason to reach a settlement before heading to court.
Ultimately, ADA lawsuits are expensive, regardless of whether the business chooses to fight the allegations (and regardless of whether the plaintiff profits). As we wrote last year, U.S. businesses may have spent $3.3 billion responding to ADA demand letters in 2020 alone.
When can the Justice Department file ADA lawsuits?
Private plaintiffs are responsible for the vast majority of ADA lawsuits. However, in certain circumstances, the Justice Department may also file litigation.
The Justice Department is authorized to file ADA lawsuits in “cases of general public importance" or where a “pattern or practice of discrimination is alleged.” In other words, the DOJ generally won’t file lawsuits against small businesses, but if an alleged ADA violation affects the rights of a large number of consumers, the Department may launch an investigation.
During the Biden administration, the DOJ’s enforcement of web accessibility has increased. Notably, in December 2021, the Department reached a settlement agreement with supermarket chain Hy-Vee, Inc. for alleged Title III compliance violations on the company’s COVID-19 vaccine portal.
What are the technical standards for ADA website compliance?
The ADA doesn’t include technical requirements for websites. However, the Justice Department has identified the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a reasonable standard. The DOJ often requires businesses to meet the Level AA guidelines of the latest version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1) as part of structured settlements.
Individual plaintiffs can file ADA lawsuits for any alleged accessibility issue, but nearly all lawsuits cite specific WCAG conformance failures. The bottom line: If your website conforms with WCAG 2.1 Level AA, it is generally considered accessible for most users with disabilities, and therefore compliant with the ADA and other non-discrimination laws.
Related: What is ADA Website Accessibility?
While ADA lawsuits are expensive, digital accessibility is a great investment
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you’re concerned about whether your content is ADA compliant. Many organizations begin prioritizing accessibility in order to fulfill their obligations under the ADA and other non-discrimination laws. However, it’s important to remember that compliance is only one of the benefits of an accessible mindset.
When your content is accessible, it works better for everyone. About 1 billion people worldwide live with some form of disability, and following WCAG accommodates these users — while also improving online experiences for people who browse the internet on small screens, people who browse without sound enabled, and other users who access your content in different ways.
Websites that conform with WCAG 2.1 Level AA may benefit from:
- Improved public relations and enhanced brand sentiment
- Lower costs for website maintenance and customer service
- Improved search engine optimization (SEO)
- Higher customer retention and conversion rates
The business case for web accessibility is incredibly strong. Adopting the principles of WCAG may require an investment, but that investment pays off quickly, particularly when businesses prioritize users with disabilities when creating websites, mobile apps, and other digital products.