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Lawyers cash in on suits demanding ADA-compliant Web sites

New York Post, July 11, 2017

By: Lisa Fickenscher 

Retailers across the country are getting slammed for operating Web sites that discriminate against the blind or visually impaired.

Businesses in New York and California appear to be getting hit the hardest, legal experts said.

In New York, 14 retailers have been sued in the past 13 days, court papers reveal.

Big-name retailers hit with suits include Shake Shack, Nordstrom and Katz’s Delicatessen, court papers show.

The legal floodgates were opened roughly a month ago when a federal judge in Florida ruled after a bench trial that bricks-and-mortar retailers that operate Web stores had to make the same “public accommodation” online as they do in their stores.

The Florida case involved Winn-Dixie Stores and is believed to be the first Americans with Disabilities Act-driven Web site case to go to trial.

The judge’s June 12 ruling means retailers’ sites have to be compatible with screen-reading software or other technologies for the visually impaired.

In New York, lawyers are feasting on this new interpretation of the ADA.

Lawyer Jeffrey Gottlieb has filed at least 26 such cases over the past two months on behalf of two plaintiffs — Steven Matzura and Lawrence Young — who are suing Warby Parker, Stew Leonard’s, Sephora, Mac Cosmetics and others.

“We have other cases that we are looking at, but haven’t filed yet,” Gottlieb told The Post.

It was estimated during the Florida trial that it costs roughly $37,000 to make a Web site ADA compliant — a total that could be hard to handle for a small business.

The majority of Gottlieb’s suits are against restaurants, because “blind people have difficulty cooking so they eat a lot of prepared food,” he explained. “But they can’t read the menus online or even get addresses for the restaurants.”

“Most businesses are settling these complaints,” said Carolyn Richmond, co-chair of the hospitality practice at Fox Rothschild, who is representing clients that have been sued over this issue. “This is a whole new area that very few people know about, including Web designers.”

The lawsuits aim to force the stores to make their sites ADA compliant.

Federal law bars ADA suits from winning damages — but lawyers are allowed to pursue collection of their legal fees, which can run as high as $25,000, or more, according to Richmond.
In New York, plaintiffs are limited to a $500 settlement per case.

“These are cut-and-paste lawsuits that are not about accessibility but about making money,” according to Tom Stebbins, executive director of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York.

Meanwhile, Washington has yet to clarify the 1990, pre-internet law — and experts don’t expect a revised rule until 2018.

“We are worried that New York will become worse than California, which has a $1 billion problem in these lawsuits,” Stebbins said.