On Friday January 26, a federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia, dismissed a lawsuit against the Northwest Federal Credit Union (Northwest FCU). The complaint alleged that Northwest FCU’s website was inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The case was one of 31 filed since September 2017 by plaintiff Keith Carroll against credit unions and banks located in the Eastern District of Virginia. Carroll, who is blind and accesses the internet with the use of a screen reader, alleged that he attempted to visit the credit union and bank websites but was unable to do so because a number of issues, including images without alternative text and form fields that were missing labels.
Of the 31 cases filed by Carroll, 15 have been voluntarily dismissed following a settlement.
Northwest FCU argued in its motion to dismiss that Carroll did not have standing to sue because he was not eligible for membership in the credit union, and thus could not demonstrate a likelihood to return to the website or a real threat of future harm. Northwest FCU’s membership is limited to current and former employees of the Central Intelligence Agency and their immediate families.
The court, in a decision by Senior District Judge Claude Hilton, agreed. According to Judge Hilton, “Because [Carroll] cannot demonstrate that he is entitled to participate in any of Northwest FCU’s services, he cannot show any redressible injury.”
Although a lack of standing would have been sufficient on its own to dismiss the case against Northwest FCU, Judge Hilton went further, stating that Carroll’s claim also failed because websites did not qualify as places of public accommodation under Title III. In making this determination, Judge Hilton relied on the fact that Title III only lists brick and mortar places, as well as a 2004 case, Noah v. AOL Time Warner Inc., in which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “chat rooms and other online services do not constitute a place of public accommodation.”
Prospective defendants should not get too excited by Judge Hilton’s decision, however. Standing is a threshold question that must be addressed before the court can rule on the merits of a case. Because Judge Hilton found that Carroll did not have standing to bring suit, the portions of the decision discussing whether the ADA extends to websites would likely be considered non-precedential dicta by other courts.
The case was quickly lauded by credit union industry groups, including the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions (NAFCU) and the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), both of which have been working to help member credit unions that have been sued over accessibility.
“Credit unions, banks and other entities have faced a rash of lawsuits in the past year related to website accessibility. NAFCU and its members strongly support the protections of the ADA and efforts to ensure individuals with disabilities are not discriminated against and have equal access to financial services. However, this is best achieved through clear guidance and standards for website compliance, not through meritless and costly lawsuits,” NAFCU President Dan Berger told the Credit Union Times.
CUNA, on the other hand, emphasized that the case could still be appealed. “This decision confirms what we’ve been saying all along – these suits are predatory and frivolous. But the work is not done: this case could be appealed. Other cases are pending. The regulatory requirements are not clear,” said CUNA President Jim Nussle.
The case has not yet been appealed as of the time of writing.
This blog post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.