Our colleagues Joshua A. Stein and Frank C. Morris, Jr., at Epstein Becker Green have a post on the Health Employment And Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “The U.S. Access-Board Releases Long-Awaited Final Accessible Medical Diagnostic Equipment Standards.”

Following is an excerpt:

As part of a flurry of activity in the final days of the Obama Administration, the U.S. the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the “Access Board”) has finally announced the release of its Accessibility Standards for Medical Diagnostic Equipment (the “MDE Standards”). Published in the Federal Register on Monday, January 9, 2017, the MDE Standards are a set of design criteria intended to provide individuals with disabilities access to medical diagnostic equipment such as examination tables and chairs (including those used for dental or optical exams), weight scales, radiological equipment, mammography equipment and other equipment used by health professionals for diagnostic purposes. …

Read the full post here.

Earlier this month, in the waning moments of the Obama Administration, the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the “Access Board”) took the long-anticipated step of requiring websites of federal government agencies to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 Levels A and AA.  (The Access Board was established in 1973 to develop and maintain standards for accessible design in the built environment, transit vehicles and systems, telecommunications equipment and electronic and information technology.)

On Thursday, January 5, 2017, the Access Board announced the release of the long anticipated “Information and Communication Technology (“ITC”) Standards and Guidelines,” which update and combine the previously separate requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (requiring federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities) and Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934 (requiring telecommunication equipment manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities), into one rule.  The ITC Standards and Guidelines (also referred to as the “508 Refresh”) were officially released by the Access Board on Monday, January 9, 2017 and published in the Federal Register on January 18, 2017.

This final rule includes the following noteworthy changes from the previously published Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”):

  • Provides a “Safe Harbor” provision;
  • Incorporates the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 Levels A and AA by reference;
  • Covers all types of public-facing content, as well as nine (9) categories of non-public-facing content that communicate agency official business; and
  • Extends the previously contemplated compliance dates.

Application

To Whom Do the ITC Standards and Guidelines Apply?

The Section 508-based ITC Standards apply only to Federal Agencies subject to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 who develop, procure, maintain or use ITC and is intended to ensure Federal employees with disabilities have comparable access to, and use of, such information and data relative to other Federal employees unless doing so would impose an undue burden.

The Section 255-based guidelines apply to manufactures of telecommunication equipment and address the accessibility of newly released, upgraded, or substantially changed telecommunications equipment (as well as support documentation and services, including electronic documents and web-based product support) subject to Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934.

Who Do the ITC Standards and Guidelines Not Apply To?

  • Private Businesses – including healthcare, retail, hospitality, financial services, etc.;
  • State and Local Government Agencies;
  • Public Schools;
  • Colleges; and
  • Non Profit Entities.

It should be noted, however, that when the DOJ publishes proposed website accessibility regulations applicable to the private sector, and consistent with the DOJ’s long standing position, website accessibility will very likely be defined as compliance with WCAG 2.0, levels A and AA, just as the Access Board has used these guidelines in the Section 508 Refresh.

Deadlines

On Tuesday, January 10, 2017 the Access Board held a briefing at their Washington, D.C. office to provide a top level overview of these new rules and to provide a public question and answer session.  During this meeting, the Access Board reinforced the following information:

  • The final rule was set to be “effective” 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register.  Therefore, as the final rule was published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, January 18, 2017, the “effective” date was set to be Sunday, March 19, 2017.  (It is worth noting on January 20, 2017, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus issued a memorandum from the White House to the heads of executive departments and agencies calling for a sixty (60) day postponement of the effective date of regulations that have been published in the Federal Registry but not yet taken effect.  Therefore, this date may yet be delayed.)
  • Notwithstanding that deadline:
    • Compliance with the Section 508-based Standards is not required until 12 months from the date of publication in the Federal Register.  Therefore, the anticipated date of compliance for the Section 508-based Standards will be Thursday, January 18, 2018; and
    • Compliance with the Section 255-based guidelines will not be required until the guidelines are adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Our colleagues Joshua Stein, co-chair of Epstein Becker Green’s ADA and Public Accommodations Group, and Stephen Strobach, Accessibility Specialist, have a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry:  “DOJ Refreshes Its Efforts to Promulgate Title II Website Accessibility Regulations and Other Accessible Technology Updates – What Does It All Suggest for Businesses?”

Following is an excerpt:

On April 28, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, withdrew its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) titled Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability; Accessibility of Web Information and Services of State and Local Government Entities.  This original initiative, which was commenced at the 20th Anniversary of the ADA in 2010, was expected to result in a final NPRM setting forth website accessibility regulations for state and local government entities later this year. Instead, citing a need to address the evolution and enhancement of technology (both with respect to web design and assistive technology for individuals with disabilities) and to collect more information on the costs and benefits associated with making websites accessible, DOJ “refreshed” its regulatory process and, instead, on May 9, 2016, published a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM) in the federal register. …

The questions posed in the SNPRM indicate that DOJ is considering many of the issues that Title III businesses have been forced to grapple with on their own in the face of the recent wave of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits commenced on behalf of private plaintiffs and advocacy groups.  It would be a positive development for any eventual government regulations to clearly speak to these issues.  Conversely, it may be even longer before we see final regulations for Title III entities. …

While most current settlement agreements regarding website accessibility focus on desktop websites, many businesses are anticipating that the next target for plaintiffs and advocacy groups will be their mobile websites and applications.  Such concern is well founded as recent DOJ settlement agreements addressing accessible technology have included modifications to both desktop websites and mobile applications.

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein, attorney at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “Recent Decisions Reinforce That Accessible Technology Claims Are Not Going Away.”

Following is an excerpt:

As businesses continue to compete to provide customers and guests with more attractive services and amenities, we have seen increased utilization of technology to provide those enhanced experiences.  However, in adopting and increasingly relying on new technologies such as websites, mobile applications, and touchscreen technology (e.g., point of sale devices, beverage dispensers, check-in kiosks) accessibility is often overlooked because of the lack of specific federal standards in most contexts. The two recent decisions discussed below – one in New York and the other in California – do just that.

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein has a Retail Labor and Employment Law Blog post that will be of interest to many of our technology industry readers: “Defending Against Website Accessibility Claims: Recent Decisions Suggest the Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine Is Unlikely to Serve As Businesses’ Silver Bullet.”

Following is an excerpt:

For businesses hoping to identify an avenue to quickly and definitively defeat the recent deluge of website accessibility claims brought by industrious plaintiff’s firms, advocacy groups, and government regulators in the initial stages of litigation, recent news out of the District of Massachusetts – rejecting technical/jurisdictional arguments raised by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – provides the latest roadblock. …

These recent decisions reveal a reluctance among the courts to dismiss website accessibility actions on technical/jurisdictional grounds.  Taken along with the expanding number of jurisdictions who subscribe to legal theories accepting that Title III covers website accessibility (whether adopting a nexus theory or broadly interpreting the spirit and purpose of the ADA) and it is becoming increasingly clear that many businesses will have a difficult time ridding themselves of website accessibility claims in the early stages of litigation.  Of course, these decisions have been quick to note they do not foreclose a variety of potentially successful defenses that may be asserted later in the litigation – e.g., undue burden, fundamental alteration, and the provision of equivalent/alternative means of access.  While, to date, the existing website accessibility case law has not focused on when these defenses might prevail, with the recent proliferation of website accessibility demand letters and litigation, businesses should soon find themselves with greater guidance from the courts.  In the interim, the best way to guard against potential website accessibility claims continues to be to take prophylactic measures to address compliance before you receive a demand letter, complaint, or notice of investigation.

Read the full post here.

Joshua A. SteinFrustrating news has emerged from Washington D.C. as the recently-published federal government’s Fall Semiannual Regulatory Agenda revealed that the long-anticipated U.S. Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) for regulations governing website accessibility for places of public accommodation under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“Title III”) would not be issued in the Spring of 2016 as most recently anticipated and would instead be delayed until fiscal year 2018.  DOJ now intends to issue a NPRM governing website accessibility for state and local governments under Title II of the ADA in early 2016 and then hopes that that process will create the necessary infrastructure to develop and promulgate similar regulations for entities governed by Title III

Such news is particularly troubling given the recent surge in website accessibility actions brought against places of public accommodation and business establishments operating exclusively in cyberspace by private plaintiffs, advocacy groups, and regulators at the federal, state, and local levels.  Indeed, notwithstanding DOJ’s latest delay, there is no indication that the federal government intends to cease its quest to have places of public accommodation provide accessible websites.  Relying upon Title III’s overarching civil rights obligations – most importantly that places of public accommodation provide “full and equal enjoyment” of its goods, services, etc. – DOJ continues to seek website accessibility provisions as part of its settlement agreements with a wide variety of places of public accommodation.  DOJ has even gone so far as to file Statements of Interest in private litigations ongoing between both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Association of the Deaf in the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts opposing their efforts to have the lawsuits dismissed or stayed pending DOJ’s completion of the rulemaking process.  (3:15-CV-30023 (D.Mass) and 3:15-CV-30224 (D.Mass))

The limited number of judicial decisions addressing the applicability of Title III to the websites of places of public accommodation and online businesses do not provide a clear road map for businesses due to the existence of a split body of case law.  The current law falls along three primary lines:  (i) Title III’s application is limited to actual physical places and cannot apply to websites absent an amendment to Title III or the issuance of new regulations; (ii) Title III applies to websites when there is a nexus between a physical place of public accommodation and the goods and services offered on its website; and (iii) Title III applies to even online-only businesses because Title III must be read broadly to promote the ADA’s goal of allowing individuals with disabilities to fully and equally enjoy and participate in society and, therefore, it must evolve to apply to new technologies.  The limited body of case law to date has developed primarily in the preliminary motion to dismiss phase and, therefore, the viability of various potential affirmative defenses or what it means for a website to be accessible has not be sufficiently analyzed by the courts. 

Further complicating the landscape, since DOJ announced its previous delay of the regulations (then into April 2016) this past spring, businesses across most industries – including retail, hospitality, financial services, and sports and entertainment – have been deluged with demand letters from industrious plaintiffs’ firms seeking to take advantage of the regulatory uncertainty and limited case law.  Understanding that the costs of litigating a developing area of the law may prove significant and the return uncertain, many businesses are opting to reach amicable resolutions to these matters rather than explore more aggressive litigation positions.  To the extent others hoped that DOJ guidance would soon stem the tide of these demand letters, this most recent development is disheartening news.  Businesses hoping to avoid such letters are best served by taking prophylactic actions to address the accessibility of their websites.

For more on these issues see: 

http://www.hospitalitylaboremploymentlawblog.com/2015/06/articles/ada/doj-further-delays-release-of-highly-anticipated-proposed-website-accessibility-regulations-for-public-accommodations/

http://www.technologyemploymentlaw.com/ada-and-disability-law/access-board-seeks-to-revise-accessibility-standards-for-information-and-communications-technology-of-federal-agencies-and-certain-technology-manufacturers-moving-to-functionality-based-approach/

http://www.ebglaw.com/joshua-a-stein/news/key-issues-facing-places-of-public-accommodation-at-the-25th-anniversary-of-the-ada/

34th Annual Workforce Management Briefing Banner

When:  Thursday, October 15, 2015    8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Where:  New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

This year, Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing focuses on the latest developments that impact employers nationwide, featuring senior officials from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We will also take a close look at the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and its growing impact on the workplace.

In addition, we are excited to welcome our keynote speaker Neil Cavuto, Senior Vice President, Managing Editor, and Anchor for both FOX News Channel and FOX Business Network.

Our industry-focused breakout sessions will feature panels composed of Epstein Becker Green attorneys and senior executives from major companies, discussing issues that keep employers awake at night.  From the latest National Labor Relations Board developments to data privacy and security concerns, each workshop will offer insight on how to mitigate risk and avoid costly litigation.

View the full briefing agenda here. Contact Kiirsten Lederer or Elizabeth Gannon for more information and to register.   Seats are limited.

My colleague Joshua A. Stein at Epstein Becker Green has a Hospitality Labor and Employment Law blog post that will be of interest to many of our readers: “DOJ Further Delays Release of Highly Anticipated Proposed Website Accessibility Regulations for Public Accommodations.”

Following is an excerpt:

For those who have been eagerly anticipating the release of the U.S. Department of Justice’s proposed website accessibility regulations for public keyboard-4x3_jpgaccommodations under Title III of the ADA (the “Public Accommodation Website Regulations”), the wait just got even longer.  The recently released Spring 2015 Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions reveals that DOJ’s Public Accommodation Website Regulations are now not expected until April 2016.  This delay moves back the release date nearly a year from what most had previously anticipated; this summer in advance of July’s 25th Anniversary of the ADA.  While there was no public statement explaining the release, most insiders believe it has to do with the difficulty of appropriately quantifying the costs and benefits of complying with any promulgated regulations – a necessary step by DOJ for such a rulemaking.

Read the full original post here.

Epstein Becker Green will host a complimentary webinar, “Hi-Tech Compliance in the Digital Age” on June 25th from 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. (EDT) presented by Epstein Becker Green attorneys Michelle Capezza, Nathaniel M. Glasser, Adam C. Solander, and Joshua A. Stein.

Below is a description of the webinar:

All employers face unique challenges in having to comply with both overarching and targeted labor and employment, employee benefits, and civil rights laws and regulations that greatly impact their workplace and business model.  As employers — including those operating in the technology, media, and telecommunications industry — you need to understand the rapidly evolving developments in federal and state laws and regulations and determine whether they require you to take actions today to minimize your company’s legal exposure.

Join our experienced panelists as they review critical hi-tech issues that should be at the top of your workplace compliance list.

Topics will include:

  • Privacy and Security Questions When Dealing with Employees
  • Fiduciary Responsibilities in Connection with Plan Participant Data
  • Website Accessibility

To register for this complimentary webinar, please click here.

On February 18, 2015, the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the “Access Board”) announced the release of its Notice of Proposed Rule Making (“NPRM”), refreshing and revising the existing accessibility requirements under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“508 Standards”) and Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934 (the “255 Guidelines”), and merging them into a single rulemaking intended to support the accessibility of Information and Communications Technology (“ICT”) for individuals with disabilities in the federal sector.

Purpose

As noted in the NPRM, the main purpose of this effort is to replace the current product-based approach to ICT accessibility with a functionality–based approach that will appropriately address and keep pace with fundamental shifts, developments, and advancements in technology (e.g., the proliferation of devices with multifunctional capabilities such as smartphones; the increasing use of tablets and other touchscreens, etc.).  Additional goals of these changes include promoting consistency with regard to the accessibility of ICT and related products across the U.S., harmonization with international requirements, and voluntary consensus standards for accessible technology.

Section 508

The 508 Standards require federal agencies to ensure that individuals with disabilities – federal employees as well as members of the public – have comparable access to and use of electronic and information technologies, unless doing so would impose an undue burden.  The 508 Standards apply to ICT developed, procured, maintained, and used by federal agencies (e.g., websites, information kiosks and transaction machines, computers, telecommunication equipment, multifunctional office equipment, etc.) unless limited exceptions or defenses apply.  Under Section 508, it is the responsibility of each agency to establish policies and procedures describing how each will comply with the standards, including those for making undue burden and fundamental alteration determinations.

Section 255

The 255 Guidelines require manufacturers of telecommunication equipment and customer premises equipment to ensure new and substantially upgraded existing equipment is accessible to, and usable by, individuals with disabilities when readily achievable.  The 255 Guidelines are enforced solely by the FCC.

Major Changes Noted in the NPRM

In its NPRM, the Access Board proposes the following major changes to the 508 Standards and the 255 Guidelines:

  1. Incorporating the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (“WCAG 2.0”) at Levels A and AA by reference to govern both web and non-web electronic content (g., government internet sites, government intranet sites, word processing documents, PDF documents, project management software, etc.);
  2. Clarifying that the requirements apply both to all public-facing content (g., agency websites, documents and media, blog posts, social media sites, etc.) and also to certain internal, non-public, electronic content.  Specifically, that considered “official business” of a given agency as well as eight (8) categories of non-public communications:
    1. emergency notifications;
    2. initial or final decisions adjudicating administrative claims or proceedings;
    3. internal or external program or policy announcements;
    4. notices of benefits, program eligibility, employment opportunities or personnel actions;
    5. formal acknowledgements or receipts;
    6. questionnaires or surveys;
    7. templates or forms; and
    8. educational or training materials.
  3. Requiring Real Time Text (“RTT”) functionality (texting which occurs in near-real time as each character is typed) for products providing real-time, two-way, voice communication;
  4. Providing more specificity regarding how hardware and software should interact with assistive technology; and
  5. Updating functional performance criteria that address barriers to using ICT by individuals with certain disabilities which apply in two specific circumstances: (i) when there is a gap between a technology and the technical requirements set forth in the refresh; and (ii) when evaluating equivalent facilitation.

Potential Impact Beyond Federal Agencies

It is important to note that while the ICT Standards and Guidelines apply directly to federal agencies, the NPRM requires each federal agency to procure accessible ICT products.  Therefore, in order for a federal agency to award a government contract, bidding contractors are required to provide ICT that complies with the 508 Standards and the 255 Guidelines (unless the ICT acquired by a contractor is incidental to a contract or another limited exception or defense applies).

Notice and Comment Period

Once officially published in the Federal Register, these proposed rules will be open for public comment for a 90 day period.  (If the anticipated publication date of February 27, 2015 holds true, the public comment period will end on Thursday, May 28, 2015).  The public comment period will include two public hearings, the first to be held in San Diego, C.A. on March 5, 2015 and the second to be held in Washington, D.C. on March 11, 2015.  Additional information regarding the submission of comments to the NPRM can be found at the Federal Rulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov/.

Looking Ahead to the Private Sector

While this NPRM may only directly apply to certain sections of the private sector, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) is concurrently drafting its own NPRM which would promulgate revised regulations for Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requiring places of public accommodations to make the goods, services, facilities, privileges, accommodations, or advantages they offer via the Internet, specifically on websites, accessible to individuals with disabilities.  The content of the Access Board’s ICT NPRM likely provides an indication of where key aspects of DOJ’s NPRM for website accessibility are heading.  Based upon recent information, most expect DOJ’s NPRM to be released in advance of the 25th anniversary of the ADA (July 26, 2015).

For additional information, please contact Joshua Stein (jstein@ebglaw.com).