US Supreme Court Acheson Hotel Case May Impact Web Accessibility Lawsuits

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This is an article about a lawsuit in the United States. The case was heard in the U.S. Supreme Court on October 4, 2023. On December 5, 2023 the Court decided it would not decide the case because it was “moot.” Moot means the people in the case don’t have a dispute anymore. The case was about whether a civil rights tester can file a lawsuit. Testing has been an important part of civil rights enforcement in this country for decades. It is an important tool for the Americans with Disabilities Act. This lawsuit is about a hotel’s failure to post information on its website about accessible rooms, which is required by the ADA. This case is not about web accessibility but the court’s opinion could have impacted web access cases. But the court said the case was moot because the hotel had been sold, the information was posted, and the disabled plaintiff wanted to drop the case.

Article updated

This article has been updated since it was first published on October 3, 2023. The most recent update was added on December 5, 2023. Read the updates for this article.

United States Supreme Court

On Wednesday October 4 the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case about who can file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case is called Acheson Hotels vs. Deborah Laufer.

Ms. Laufer is a disabled woman. She uses a wheelchair and has a vision impairment and limited use of her hands. She sued because when she visited the Acheson Hotels website she found it was in violation of a part of the ADA that requires hotels to post online information about its hotel rooms’ accessibility features. This information is essential to disabled travelers across the United States.

The case is not about whether the Acheson website is accessible, but the Supreme Court Opinion, not expected until 2024, may impact lawsuits filed about whether a website is accessible to disabled people.

Audio recordings and transcripts of the US Supreme Court argument in this case should be available on the court’s website on October 4.

What is this case about?

In the United States, a person cannot just file a lawsuit whenever they encounter something they do not like. A person has to have “standing to sue” to file the case. Standing means you have to be harmed by a problem you encountered and are trying to remedy.

Deborah Laufer is what is known as a civil rights tester: she did not intend to visit the Acheson Hotel, but instead she was testing its website to see if Acheson complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for posting hotel accessibility information.

In the United States, there is a long legal history saying that civil rights testers have standing to sue. This history recognizes that testing for violation of civil rights laws (like the ADA) and filing lawsuits when discrimination is found, is crucial to enforcing those laws. Testers, for example, have been critical in enforcing laws designed to prohibit landlords and homeowners from discriminating against Black people wanting to secure housing. (Read about testers and Martin Luther King’s role in fair housing advocacy.)

This legal history recognizes too that civil rights testers experience the type of harm that is required to file a lawsuit.

In this case, Deborah Laufer stated that she experienced “frustration and humiliation” and a “sense of isolation and segregation” when she discovered that Acheson Hotels did not provide the information required by the ADA. She also stated that she felt she was “treated like a second class citizen” when she could not get the required accessibility information from the website. This type of impact, known as “dignitary harm” has long been the type of harm that standing law requires.

This is a very early stage of the case — the Court will be deciding only if it go forward or should it be thrown out. It is not about who will ultimately win or lose the case. It is not about whether there are too many ADA lawsuits, or even whether Ms. Laufer herself has filed too many lawsuits. At this stage of the case the court must consider her court pleadings to be true.

As the lawyers for the disability community wrote in a brief, the court should only be deciding “whether a disabled person who pled that she experienced “frustration and humiliation” and a “sense of isolation and segregation” upon finding required accessibility information absent from a hotel’s reservations service has alleged an injury-in-fact sufficient to establish standing at the motion-to-dismiss stage.”

The outpouring of support for the rights of testers to file discrimination lawsuits from prominent organizations across the civil right spectrum (see links below) demonstrates the importance of tester standing to make sure civil rights laws in this country are enforced. The Supreme Court’s eventual opinion on standing in this case may impact web accessibility cases too. We’ll have to wait and see.

Learn more about this case

Many “Friends of the Court” briefs (officially called Amicus Briefs) were filed in support of Deborah Laufer’s right to bring this lawsuit as a civil rights tester. These include the following

  • Disability community brief: This brief was filed by eighteen well respected disability rights organizations including the Disability rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). The full list of supporting organizations can be found on the last page of the brief.
  • Brief submitted by Massachusetts and 8 other states. This brief in support of civil rights tester standing was filed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington. The brief begins with the statement that these states “share sovereign and compelling interests in protecting people with disabilities from discrimination within our borders.”
  • Brief submitted by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and 8 other civil rights organizations. This brief was filed by “civil rights organizations committed to the effective enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and the preservation of access to the courts for victims of discrimination.” In addition to the NAACP LDF the organizations include Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. (“Lambda Legal”) and the National Women’s Law Center.

Civil rights lawsuits are essential to the legal framework in the United States that prohibits discrimination based on disability, race, gender, and more. And civil rights tester standing, as these briefs so carefully explain, is critical to that framework. I appreciate the principled (and excellent) work done by the lawyers who wrote these amicus briefs to protect the long history of civil rights enforcement in this country.

Updates to this article

December 5, 2023 Update

Today the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will not decide who wins this case because the case is moot. (See the October 26 update below for more about mootness.) This is great news for disability rights law, and for broader civil rights law. There was a real risk that a decision in the case would put an end to “tester standing,” an important way civil rights laws are enforced in this country.

All nine Supreme Court justices agreed that the case was moot and should not be decided. Seven of the justices agreed on what should happen next, ruling that the lower court’s decision is also moot. One justice (Ketanji Brown Jackson) thought the lower court decision (in favor of the disabled plaintiff) should remain on the books.

Another justice (Clarence Thomas) wanted the court to decide the general issue of tester standing in this type of ADA case (he’s against it), even though he agreed this particular case was moot.

October 26, 2023 Update

As reported above, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Acheson Hotel case on October 4, 2023.

The court will not decide the case until 2024. It is possible that the court will decide the case is “moot” and there will be no opinion on whether Ms. Acheson had standing to file her lawsuit as a tester (see main article for more information on testers.)

Moot means that there is not really a controversy anymore between the parties of the case. This was discussed during the oral argument because Ms. Laufer dismissed her case, the defendant no longer owns the hotel that did not post the required accessibility information, and the new owners of the hotel have posted the required accessibility information.

One Supreme Court justice said the case was “dead as a doornail.” Another said that the case was “dead, dead, dead in all the ways that something can be dead.”

We won’t know until next year if the Supreme Court will decide if the case is moot, or if it will write an opinion about tester standing in this type of ADA case. Michelle Uzeta, Deputy Legal Direct of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) was instrumental in writing the disability community “friend of the court” (amicus) brief at the Supreme Court. She told me that:

If the Supreme Court decides the case is not moot and does write an opinion, we hope they will allow testers to continue to play a meaningful role in the enforcement of this country’s civil rights laws and bring the ADA’s still-unfulfilled promise closer to realization.Michelle Uzeta, DREDF attorney

I will update this post as soon as I hear something.

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