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ADA and Disability Law

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 Frank C. Morris, Jr., attorney at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Financial Services Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “New Online Recruiting Accessibility Tool Could Help Forestall ADA Claims by Applicants With Disabilities.”

Following is an excerpt:

In recent years, employers have increasingly turned to web based recruiting technologies and online applications. For some potential job applicants, including individuals with disabilities, such as those who are blind or have low vision, online technologies for seeking positions can prove problematic. For example, some recruiting technologies and web-based job applications may not work for individuals with disabilities who use screen readers to access information on the web. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) recently announced the launch of “TalentWorks.”

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.

Our colleague Frank C. Morris, Jr., a Member of the Firm in the Litigation and Employee Benefits practices, in the firm’s Washington, DC, office, was quoted in “Retaliation, ADA Charges Rise” by Allen Smith.  The article discusses the uptick in retaliation charges which have been filed and includes tips for employers on how to reduce the likelihood that they will get hit with those types of charges.

Following is an excerpt:

ADA cases today are more often about what took place in the interactive process for identifying a reasonable accommodation than about whether a disability is covered by the law. So, employers should have protocols in place on how to respond to accommodation requests and should document those efforts. This is “incredibly important” if there is litigation, Morris said.

If there is an agreement on an accommodation, put it in writing and have the employee sign the document, he recommended.

Remember that under the ADA, the accommodation obligation is ongoing. “Just because you’d done everything right in 2015 doesn’t mean you don’t need to do everything right in 2016,” he said. Things change, and the employer should be ready to start the accommodation conversation on fresh footing if the employee requests a new accommodation.

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/

https://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/

My colleague Nathaniel M. Glasser recently authored Epstein Becker Green’s Take 5 newsletter.   In this edition of Take 5, Nathaniel highlights five areas of enforcement that U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) continues to tout publicly and aggressively pursue.

  1. Religious Discrimination and Accommodation—EEOC Is Victorious in New U.S. Supreme Court Ruling
  2. Transgender Protections Under Title VII—EEOC Relies on Expanded Sex Discrimination Theories
  3. Systemic Investigations and Litigation—EEOC Gives Priority to Enforcement Initiative
  4. Narrowing the “Gender Pay Gap”—EEOC Files Suits Under the Equal Pay Act
  5. Background Checks—EEOC Seeks to Eliminate Barriers to Recruitment and Hiring

Read the Full Take 5 here.

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.

My colleagues Frank C. Morris, Jr., Adam C. Solander, and August Emil Huelle co-authored a Health Care and Life Sciences Client Alert concerning the EEOC’s proposed amendments to its ADA regulations and it is a topic of interest to many of our readers.

Following is an excerpt:

On April 16, 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released its highly anticipated proposed regulations (to be published in the Federal Register on April 20, 2015, for notice and comment) setting forth the EEOC’s interpretation of the term “voluntary” as to the disability-related inquiries and medical examination provisions of the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Under the ADA, employers are generally barred from making disability-related inquiries to employees or requiring employees to undergo medical examinations. There is an exception to this prohibition, however, for disability-related inquiries and medical examinations that are “voluntary.”

Click here to read the full Health Care and Life Sciences Client Alert.

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).

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein authored Epstein Becker Green’s recent issue of its Take 5 newsletter.   In this special edition, Josh focuses on the 25thAnniversary of the ADA and recent developments and future trends under Title III of the ADA. 

  1. Website Accessibility
  2. Accessible Point-of-Sale Devices and Other Touchscreen Technology
  3. Movie Theater Captioning & Audio (Narrative) Description
  4. The Availability of Sign Language Interpreters at Health Care Facilities
  5. “Drive By” Design/Construction Lawsuits

Read the full newsletter here.