March 27, 2023
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider whether to curtail lawsuits accusing hotels and other places of lodging of discriminating against disabled people by not providing enough information about their accessibility on their websites in a case involving a quaint inn near the Atlantic coast of Maine.
The justices took up an appeal by the Maine hotel’s owner of a lower court’s ruling allowing a disability rights advocate to sue the business for not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) even though she never planned to book one of its rooms.
The ADA is a landmark civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination in public accommodations, as well as areas including employment, transportation, communications and access to public programs and services.
Plaintiff Deborah Laufer is a self-proclaimed ADA “tester” in Florida who has filed more than 600 similar lawsuits after searching for websites of hotels that do not provide enough information about whether their rooms are accessible under the ADA.
That 1990 law requires hotels to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. A related regulation requires hotel owners to describe accessible features of their guest rooms on their websites.
The lawsuits by Laufer, who uses a wheel chair, include one she filed against Acheson Hotels, LLC, which operates the Coast Village Inn and Cottages in Wells, Maine, a small town and popular vacation destination on the state’s southern coast.
Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have said ADA “testers” have been fueling an explosion in lawsuits against small businesses accused of discriminating against disabled people.
The number of lawsuits brought under the ADA reached 11,452 in 2021, a 320% increase from 2013, according to the Chamber of Commerce. It called them “abusive lawsuits run by tester plaintiffs and their counsel who seek automatic attorneys’ fees.”
Laufer’s lawyer, Thomas Bacon, said that without “testers” like his client filing lawsuits few businesses would comply with the ADA, a law that does not provide for any award of damages and is enforced by a small handful of advocates like Laufer.
“The reality is nobody has complied voluntarily with the ADA,” Bacon said. “The only reason any place is in compliance with the law is because of these few plaintiffs. But for them, we would still be back in the 1970s.”
Federal appeals courts have been divided over whether disability rights “testers” like Laufer who have no intention of visiting a place of public accommodation have experienced a legal injury that gives them proper standing to sue companies.
While some courts have concluded the testers have not suffered a concrete enough injury to be allowed to sue, the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October reached the opposite conclusion in the Maine case.
The 1st Circuit said it was bound by a 1982 Supreme Court decision called Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman.
That ruling held that a civil rights “tester” who sought to determine if an apartment rental firm complied with the Fair Housing Act – a federal law barring discrimination by landlords, real estate companies, lenders and others due to disability, race and other factors – could sue it.
Lawyers for Acheson Hotels pointed to a more recent Supreme Court ruling, one issued in 2021 called TransUnion v. Ramirez, that held that no standing exists when there are no “downstream consequences from failing to receive the required information.”
A lawyer for Acheson Hotels, Adam Unikowsky, declined to comment.
The case is due to be heard during the court’s next term, which starts in October.
Case Summary: U.S. First Circuit Court Decision: Laufer v. Acheson Hotels, LLC (2022)
Source: Southeast ADA Center
Factsheet: Accessible Lodging
Source: ADA National Network