The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta has overturned the dismissal of a website accessibility lawsuit against Hooters, allowing the case to proceed. The decision calls into question the ability of organizations to block suits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on the basis of prior settlements.
The Claim: Hooters Website is (Still) Inaccessible with a Screen Reader
The case, Haynes v. Hooters of America, LLC, alleged that the restaurant chain’s website was inaccessible with the use of screen reader software, which individuals who are blind or low vision commonly use to access the internet.
Last year, a federal judge in Florida dismissed the case on the grounds that Hooters had previously settled a similar, but unrelated ADA suit in 2016. As part of the settlement in that case, Gomez v. Hooters of America, LLC, the restaurant chain agreed to bring its website into conformance with WCAG 2.0 standards within 12 months and place an accessibility notice on the site. The lower court thus found that the second suit was moot, because Hooters had already agreed to make its website accessible to people with disabilities.
The plaintiff, however, appealed, arguing that he had no way of enforcing the 2016 Gomez settlement, which was regardless set to expire in September 2018. Further, he sought an injunction to require Hooters to maintain the accessibility of its website on an ongoing basis—something not covered in the original settlement.
The Verdict: Yes, the Plaintiff’s Case Can Proceed
The Eleventh Circuit agreed, holding that “Hooters’ assurance to an unrelated third party to remediate its website does not alone moot Haynes’ claims for relief.” As a result, the panel remanded the case to the trial court, which will consider evidence of whether the site violates the ADA.
What Can We Learn from This Case?
While the decision calls into question the ability of organizations to use one ADA settlement to block future suits, it does leave at least one door partially open. In discussing the 2016 Gomez settlement, the decision noted that the district court in that case had not retained jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement. Though the Eleventh Circuit did not expressly state this would have changed the outcome, keeping the trial court involved post-settlement may be one strategy to minimize duplicative legal actions. Organizations might be able, for instance, to have subsequent suits consolidated with the original case.
The decision also does not address settlements of proposed class actions, which may in some cases preclude future suits by members of the class. While website accessibility class actions have historically been rare, they have been on the rise in recent years.
This blog post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.