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The Lawsuit Is Coming from Inside the Customer Base

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Written by: Marketing

Two recent lawsuits against financial services companies under the Americans with Disabilities Act show that legal risk doesn’t just come from so-called “surf-by lawsuits;” it can also come from long-standing customers.

The two cases, both filed in federal courts in New York, come from longstanding customers with disabilities who were unable to use the websites of TD Ameritrade and Morgan Stanley. In both cases, the plaintiffs allege they attempted to reach out to the financial services companies about their issues, without effect.

The suit against TD Ameritrade was brought by Elizabeth Aldworth, a blind woman who became a TD Ameritrade customer after the firm’s acquisition of Scottrade, where Aldworth had been a customer since 2008. While Aldworth had been able to use Scottrade’s website with her screen reader without difficulty, she was unable to use TD Ameritrade’s site. Aldworth informed TD Ameritrade of the barriers to access in late 2017, but according to her complaint, the firm took no action to remedy them.

This is not the first time Aldworth has had trouble accessing TD Ameritrade’s website. In 2007, she held an account with another brokerage firm that was also acquired by TD Ameritrade. In remarkably similar circumstances, her account was transferred to TD Ameritrade, and she found herself no longer able to access account information online. When the firm did not respond to her concerns, Aldworth closed her account and opened one with Scottrade, leading to the present suit.

If TD Ameritrade had made its website accessible in 2007 when Aldworth first brought the situation to their attention, the firm could have avoided potentially costly litigation—and retained a customer.

The case also raises a potential red flag that companies engaged in mergers and acquisitions should keep in mind: eliminating support for accessibility solutions is likely to alienate customers who rely on them.

The suit against Morgan Stanley was also filed by a customer who was unable to use a screen reader to access account information online.

The plaintiff, Albert Rizzi lost his vision in 2005 due to complications from meningitis. In April 2015, he developed neuropathy of the upper extremities and lost the ability to read documents in Braille. The screen reader is now the only way he can independently read online.

Rizzi first attempted to access Morgan Stanley’s website in 2011 through the use of a screen reader but was unable to do so. According to allegations in Rizzi’s complaint, he remains unable to access the Morgan Stanley website with a screen reader as of early April. Rizzi claims he attempted to notify Morgan Stanley of the issue, but no means of contacting the firm regarding accessibility issues was provided on the website.

Rizzi’s case against Morgan Stanley is his fourth ADA suit against a financial institution. He previously filed suit against HSBC (with whom he had a mortgage) in 2011 and 2016 over the company’s failure to provide billing statements and account information in accessible formats. Both cases settled prior to trial.

In February of this year, Rizzi filed suit against online lender Greensky, in which he alleged Greensky’s website was incompatible with screen reader software, making it impossible for him to check his loan balance or make loan payments. Rizzi has also brought claims under ADA Title III against United Healthcare and Park Hotels and Resorts. In each case, Rizzi was a customer who turned to the courts when his requests for accommodations were ignored.

The Aldworth and Rizzi’s suits make clear that while “surf-by lawsuits” have gotten the most press attention, many digital accessibility complaints are brought by frustrated customers who are unable to access the same services as everyone else.

Making your website accessible won’t just help you avoid costly lawsuits; it will help you keep customers who otherwise will be forced to look somewhere else.

This blog post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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