Editors’ pick

California Unruh Act and ADA Website Accessibility Lawsuits in 2020

All the stars are aligned for California to become the #1 hub for website accessibility lawsuits in 2020.

The coming litigation is going to be a big, big deal and it won’t be just California businesses and companies that are affected — this will affect everyone (Florida, New York, Texas…everyone).

What’s happening is there’s a civil rights act in California called the Unruh Act.

The Unruh Act (officially California Civil Code section 51) was enacted in 1959 to ban discrimination from businesses establishments.

In 1992, the Unruh Act was amended to apply to persons with disabilities, adopting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards wholesale, which means that any violation of the ADA is a violation of the Unruh Act.

For our purposes, this means if your website is deemed to be inaccessible and thus not ADA compliant, it is not only a violation of the ADA but a violation of California state law.

Now, here’s where the legal gold rush comes into play:

Under section 52 of the California Civil Code, victorious plaintiffs are entitled to up to 3x the actual damages and no less than $4,000 in statutory damages.

Damages can include emotional distress.

Contrast this with the ADA. Under the ADA, no damages are permitted for plaintiff’s themselves — only attorney’s fees are provided for.

This means it’s much more lucrative to be in the business of filing ADA-Unruh Act claims in The Golden State than it is elsewhere.

The result has been a 2018 and 2019 surge in California website accessibility lawsuits. And we’re not even at the peak yet. 2020 will be the biggest year yet as serial plaintiff’s law firms like Pacific Trial Attorneys file as fast as they can.

This is what I’d like to know.

Plaintiff’s lawyers have already made this leap — they’re filing lawsuits against websites with headquarters in other states — but even under the reckless and loose legal website accessibility environment I’m not sold that Unruh Act claims work against website owners headquartered in other states.

I’ve read through the Unruh Act and it was clearly written for business establishments with physical structures in California.

I’ve also read through numerous legal commentaries on Unruh Act/ADA compliance website accessibility cases and I’ve yet to see anyone address this head on.

Moreover, I even got my hands on an actual lawsuit filed in California state court and the plaintiff’s lawyer insufficiently glossed over laying the foundation for how a defendant could be hailed into California state court for a law specifically intended for California business establishments.

Plaintiff’s lawyers were already running amok with the ADA and now those licensed in California are taking that slack and tying another rope to it to make it even more lucrative to attack unsuspecting businesses.

This is what happens when you (the courts) enforce laws with your own liberal interpretation and then create them after the fact.

These value-destroying plaintiff’s lawyers are just doing what they do best: Stealing someone else’s time and money through legal loopholes.

It can be particularly frustrating if you get caught in their sights as they set unreasonably high settlement demands, clearly have no desire for actual advocacy, and have no regards for whether they destroy your small business.

What’s happened in California is plaintiff’s lawyers have taken the already vague and uncertain ADA (it doesn’t mention websites anywhere) and applied it to the California discrimination state law (which also doesn’t mention websites anywhere) and now have their own cottage industry of website accessibility lawsuits.

It’s absolutely disgusting and reprehensible but because this is not hashed out and no progressive action is being taken by state or federal courts, by the Department of Justice (DOJ), or congress, this will continue.

Again, plaintiff’s lawyers do not care if they ruin someone’s life over a law that doesn’t technically exist.

They don’t care.

It’s highly unlikely they’ll get sanctioned by the state bar.

And all you can do is do your best to stay off their radar.

Here are the best practices for avoiding an ADA Website Compliance lawsuit in 2020.

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