For decades, employers have used technology to help decision-making, from hiring to performance bonuses. While seemingly taking human biases out of the equation, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have voiced concerns over potential disability discrimination from the use of technology.

Find out more here.

San Francisco City and County District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón have filed a lawsuit in the California Superior Court in San Francisco accusing the Potter Handy LLP law firm of filing thousands of “boilerplate, cut-and-paste federal-court lawsuits that falsely assert its clients have standing under the Americans with Disabilities Act (‘ADA’)” in violation of California’s unfair competition law.

In the April 11, 2022, Complaint, the DAs assert that Potter Handy files these lawsuits against small businesses accusing them of violation of Title III of the ADA, with little regard to whether such businesses actually violated the ADA, in an effort to “shake down” small business owners for hefty financial settlements.

The DAs are requesting that the court prohibit Potter Handy from continuing to violate California’s unfair competition law. The Complaint seeks statutory damages, which could be in the tune of millions of dollars, along with law firm repaying thousands of small businesses settlement sums paid over the last four years.

This is not the first time for such action. In 2019, the Riverside County, California’s District Attorney’s office filed a civil action against four individuals — serial plaintiff (James Rutherford) and three attorneys (Craig Cote, Joseph Manning, and Babek Hashemi) — and two law firms (Manning Law, APC, and Law Offices of Babek Hashemi) for violations of California’s unfair competition law and for false advertising.

It has been the case for several years that garden-variety Title III lawsuits, like the cases called into question in these lawsuits, are attorney-driven and aimed to extract a monetary sum from unsuspecting and often compliant business owners.

The Riverside County DA’s office employed a different tactic in its latest filing aimed at remedying alleged misconduct by plaintiffs and their attorneys. It has charged two individuals with six felonies, including conspiracy and filing a false document. The individuals (Ross Christopher Cornell and Bryan Eduardo Estrada) were arrested on March 10, 2022.

The most important takeaway from these legal actions is the fact that government officials are formally attacking alleged unethical and unlawful fraudulent conduct perpetrated by these lawyers. Although the 2019 case was ultimately dismissed, the DAs in San Francisco and Riverside counties have not been deterred in their mission to hold these serial filers accountable. It remains to be seen whether potential criminal or civil liability will reduce the number of “shake down” ADA lawsuits in California. If so, it is likely that officials in other states facing similar conduct will take similar measures.

We will continue to monitor these actions as they develop.

In 2020, the California legislature considered a bill in which employers would be required to provide employees with bereavement leave, but the legislation didn’t make it to the Governor’s desk.

Assembly Bill (AB) 1949 reintroduces the idea of mandatory bereavement leave and expands the allowance from the 2020 proposal. AB 1949 would make it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to refuse to grant a request by an eligible employee to take up to 5 days of bereavement leave upon the death of a family member, including a spouse, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, domestic partner, or parent-in-law. AB 1949 would require that leave be completed within 3 months of the date of death. The bill would also require the employer to maintain employee confidentiality relating to bereavement leave.

Read the full article at Jackson Lewis’ California Workplace Law Blog.

Both Maryland and Virginia have joined the District of Columbia in enacting laws relating to paid family and medical leave for private-sector workers.

Following in the footsteps of the District of Columbia, the Maryland law will create a mandatory statewide benefit that will be funded by payroll taxes. In contrast, the Virginia law will create a voluntary benefit program whereby employers may choose to purchase insurance plans to provide paid family and medical leave benefits to employees if they so wish.

Employers across the Washington Metropolitan Region should take stock of their approach to providing family and medical leave. Area employers may need to offer paid family and medical leave benefits to at least some of their workforce.

Read our full coverage.

On standing to sue under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), two U.S. Circuit Courts have arrived at opposite conclusions where the plaintiffs did not allege any concrete injury and said they had no intention of visiting the hotels whose websites were the subject of their accessibility lawsuits. The courts based their decisions on the same U.S. Supreme Court case law and nearly identical facts.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 578 U.S. 330, 340 (2016), courts have decided a number of cases on the issue of standing vis à vis “concrete harm,” which is harm that is “real, and not abstract.” Spokeo explained that a bare statutory violation not resulting in such concrete harm means there is no case or controversy over which a federal district court can assert subject-matter jurisdiction. This is plainly an issue in Title III cases against public accommodations: if a plaintiff can show a relatively simple technical violation of the myriad of accessibility guidelines, but the violation did not cause the particular plaintiff any concrete harm, the plaintiff should, the argument goes, lack standing under Spokeo to pursue a claim and the lawsuit should be dismissed. Recently, two Circuit Courts arrived at different conclusions in cases the lower courts dismissed for lack of standing for failure to allege a concrete injury.

In Laufer v. Arpan LLC, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 8270 (11th Cir. 2022), the plaintiff sued a hotel under Title III for failure to provide required information on its website on the property’s accessible features, as is required by 28 C.F.R. 36.302 (Reservations Rule). The Reservations Rule’s purpose is to provide potential guests with disabilities sufficient information about a hotel’s accessibility features to permit them to assess whether the property is accessible for their specific limitations. The lower court dismissed the case, reasoning that the plaintiff suffered no concrete injury because she was a self-described “tester” who never intended to visit the hotel, and, therefore, the alleged lack of accessibility-related information did not cause her harm.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that, because the plaintiff alleged she suffered “frustration and humiliation” due to defendant’s alleged violation of Title III, she had Article III standing to sue. The Eleventh Circuit relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, 141 S. Ct. 2190, 2204 (2021), as well as a recent case it decided before TransUnion, Sierra v. City of Hallandale Beach, 996 F.3d 1110, 1113 (11th Cir. 2021). In Sierra, the Eleventh Circuit held the plaintiff had adequately alleged a stigmatic injury because he claimed he was personally and directly subjected to discriminatory treatment when the defendant published videos on its website that he accessed but could not understand; therefore, the plaintiff had suffered concrete and particularized harm and had standing to sue.

The Supreme Court held in TransUnion that “under Article III, an injury in law is not an injury in fact. Only those plaintiffs who have been concretely harmed by a defendant’s statutory violation may sue that private defendant over that violation in federal court …. Article III grants federal courts the power to redress harms that defendants cause plaintiffs, not a freewheeling power to hold defendants accountable for legal infractions.”

The Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that Sierra can be read in two ways and only one survives the Supreme Court’s TransUnion. It noted, “Sierra, broadly construed, would violate TransUnion’s command. To find concrete injury whenever an individual personally experiences discrimination in violation of a federal statute would be to equate statutory violations with concrete injuries. For better or worse, we can’t do that.”

Attempting to avoid overturning Sierra, the Eleventh Circuit held the emotional injury that results from illegal discrimination is sufficient to constitute a concrete injury. It held this is consistent with TransUnion because it reflects the Eleventh Circuit’s independent determination in Sierra that emotional injury caused by discrimination is a concrete harm that exists in the real world. Sierra, however, involved a claim under the Rehabilitation Act (which provides for compensatory damages) and that court based its holding that that plaintiff’s allegation of emotional harm satisfied the “concrete and particularized injury” requirement because “plaintiffs may recover damages for emotional distress for a violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.” No such claim was present in Laufer and emotional distress damages were not available.

The Laufer court held the plaintiff’s allegations satisfied Article III standing under the narrower reading of Sierra, because the plaintiff claimed not only that she suffered illegal discrimination but also that the discrimination resulted in “frustration and humiliation” and a “sense of isolation and segregation”; therefore, she adequately pleaded a concrete stigmatic injury. It appears that, in the Eleventh Circuit, plaintiffs may need only state that they felt frustrated by the alleged barriers they claim to have encountered to satisfy Article III standing, even if they have no intention of returning to the site of the barriers, will not face any direct barriers, and cannot recover for the alleged emotional injury.

In contrast, the Second Circuit, in Harty v. West Point Realty, Inc., 20-cv-2672, 2022 WL 815685 (2d Cir. Mar. 18, 2022), affirmed dismissing a claim brought under the same Reservation Rule involved in Laufer. The Second Circuit held the plaintiff did not sufficiently allege a concrete injury and, thus, lacked standing to bring the lawsuit. The Second Circuit (like the Eleventh Circuit) relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s TransUnion and determined the Supreme Court rejected the Second Circuit’s prior decisions on the standards to establish standing to sue (generally required a plaintiff to allege some risk of harm to the underlying concrete interest the federal statute sought to protect).

Similar to the plaintiff in Laufer, the plaintiff in Harty visited the hotel’s website with no intention of visiting the hotel; however, he alleged that he possibly may use the website to reserve a room at the hotel in the future. He alleged that he frequently visits hotel website to determine if they comply with the Reservations Rule. The Second Circuit determined that, because the plaintiff asserted no plans to visit the surrounding areas near the hotel, he cannot allege (despite the claimed lack of information on the hotel’s website) that his ability to travel was hampered in a way that caused him the concrete harm required to have standing to sue. Alleging a violation of the Reservations Rule alone is insufficient to confer standing to sue after TransUnion, the Second Circuit held. It also determined the district court did not abuse its discretion in not considering an affidavit the plaintiff submitted in an apparently obvious, belated attempt to bolster the allegations in his complaint concerning standing.

The Second Circuit has jurisdiction over Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, and the Eleventh Circuit has jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Absent Supreme Court or other guidance on website accessibility, claims will continue to challenge businesses.

The Washington State Legislature has again amended the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) Act.  This amendment is effective June 9, 2022.  Here is a list of the most significant changes to the law:

  • First six weeks of postnatal leave for incapacitated employee is presumptively medical leave. During the six-week postnatal period, any PFML used by an employee who is eligible for benefits based on incapacity due to pregnancy or for prenatal care will count as paid medical leave by default, unless the employee chooses to use paid family leave during that period.  Such an employee does not need to obtain certification of a serious health condition.  This new presumption is still subject to the maximum and minimum weekly benefits, duration, and other conditions and limitations under the law.
  • Bereavement Leave. This amendment permits use of paid family leave for bereavement purposes during the seven calendar days after the death of a qualifying family member.  This leave is permitted for the death of a family member for whom the employee (1) would have qualified for medical leave for the birth of their child, or (2) would have qualified for family leave to bond with their child following their birth or placement.
  • Publication of Employers with Voluntary Plans. The Washington Employment Security Department (ESD), which administers this state leave program, must now publish on ESD’s website a current list of all employers that run their own “voluntary plan” that was approved by ESD.
  • Ending CBA Exception. Previously, this law did not apply to an employee who was subject to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that was in existence on October 19, 2017, until the CBA was reopened, was renegotiated, or expired.  This exception now expires December 31, 2023.

If you have questions or need assistance, please reach out to the Jackson Lewis attorney with whom you regularly work, or any member of our Disability, Leave and Health Management Practice Group.

Recently the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released new guidance regarding discrimination against employees with caregiving responsibilities for family members. California similarly has a pending bill, Assembly Bill (AB) 2182, which seeks to add “family responsibilities” as a protected class under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

Read more here.

The Department of Justice (“DOJ”) issued Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA (the “Guidance”) regarding website accessibility under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“Title III”).  The Guidance explains at a high-level how state and local governments (entities covered by Title II of the ADA) and places of public accommodation (entities covered by Title III of the ADA and virtually any business that sells goods and services to retail consumers) can make their websites accessible to individuals with disabilities.  The Guidance discusses a range of topics, including the importance of web accessibility, barriers that inaccessible websites can create for people with disabilities, when the ADA requires web content to be accessible, and tips on making web content accessible.  The Guidance also notes that web accessibility for people with disabilities is a priority for the DOJ.

The Guidance makes clear that the requirements of Title III of the ADA apply to “all the goods, services, privileges, or activities offered by public accommodations, including those offered on the web.”  Thus, the Guidance confirms the DOJ’s view that the websites of places of public accommodation must be accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Conspicuously absent from the Guidance is whether Title III of the ADA applies to the websites of online-only businesses that offer goods and services to the public. However, the Guidance includes a link to a prior settlement agreement the DOJ reached with an online-only business, suggesting that the DOJ’s current position is that online-only businesses may be covered under Title III, and that the DOJ will take action to enforce Title III of the ADA against companies who operate consumer websites, even in the absence of a physical place of public accommodation.

The Guidance also notes that the DOJ “does not have a regulation setting out detailed standards,” and therefore “businesses and state and local governments can currently choose how they will ensure that the programs, services, and the goods they provide online are accessible to people with disabilities.”   This has been the DOJ’s long-standing position on how businesses and governmental entities can comply with its obligations under the ADA to provide auxiliary aids and services to enable effective communication with individuals with sensory impairments.  The Guidance provides links to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”), but the Guidance is silent as to what level of conformance with the WCAG standards, if any, constitutes compliance with Title III of the ADA.

Notably, the Guidance does make clear that an accessibility report “that includes a few errors does not necessarily mean there are accessibility barriers.” At the same time, while “automated accessibility checkers and overlays that identify or fix problems with your website can be helpful tools, . . . a ‘clean’ [accessibility] report [from such accessibility tools] does not necessarily mean everything is accessible.”  The Guidance suggests it is ideal to pair a manual audit of a website with the use of automated accessibility evaluation software to give businesses a better sense of their website’s accessibility under real world conditions.

The most important takeaway from the Guidance is the fact that the DOJ has issued Guidance at all on this topic.  Indeed, on December 26, 2016, the DOJ Published a Notice of Withdrawal of Four Previously Announced Rulemaking Actions.  See 82 Fed. Reg. 60932 (December 26, 2017).  After years of silence on the issue of Title III of the ADA’s application to websites, the fact that the DOJ has turned its attention to this topic may indicate increased enforcement activity by the DOJ than in years past.

If you have questions, please reach out to your Jackson Lewis lawyer or our Disability Access Litigation and Compliance Resource Group.

As the number of employees requesting flexible work arrangements increases, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has released a new technical assistance document, “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Caregiver Discrimination Under Federal Employment Discrimination Law,” and an update to its COVID-19 “What You Should Know” to address employees and job seekers with family caregiving responsibilities.

Read more here.