SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Hundreds of Bay Area merchants have been hit hard lately with lawsuits for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the legal action is not just taking aim at brick and mortar businesses; it’s also targeting internet sites.
Instead of a “drive-by” ADA lawsuit, it’s referred to on the street as a “click-by.” Some serial ADA plaintiffs sue almost exclusively over access to websites. And hotels are the hottest targets.READ MORE: Teen Driver Injured in Solo Crash Near San Gregorio
Prabha Patel was eager to show KPIX 5 just how ADA-compliant her hotel room for the disabled is.
“100 percent compliant; 110 percent compliant!” said Patel.
But it wasn’t anything in the room itself that got this San Francisco hotel owner sued recently. It was the hotel’s booking website that the plaintiff claimed was not fully accessible. And Patel is not the only one facing such a claim.
“We had a lawsuit that was filed against us. The interesting thing is my hotel was closed, so you couldn’t have stayed with us anyway,” said Jon Handlery, General Manager of the Handlery Hotel on Union Square.
Handlery’s hotel also got sued over its booking site, one of 14 hotels in the Union Square area that got slapped with almost identical complaints in the space of just one month last fall.
“The hotel industry is going to do everything they can to accommodate people with a disability. Because they’re traveling. So why wouldn’t you want to have the ability to have them as guests, as anyone else?” asked Handlery.
The plaintiff in the Handlery case was Samuel Love, a disabled man who has filed more than 850 ADA lawsuits, most involving online web access.
Federal website accessibility lawsuits are nothing new. But in the past five years the filings have more than tripled, according to the ADA defense firm Seyfarth. They jumped another 12% last year during the height of the pandemic.
“I think they’re easy targets, right? So, I mean, from an online standpoint, you don’t have to go anywhere. You could do it from your house, right?” said Roshan Patel.
He and his brother Raj Patel run INNsight, a company that specializes in ADA compliance for hotel reservation websites. INNsight designed the website for the Inn at Golden Gate.
“You have to basically display that you have like 32-inch-wide openings to the room, if there’s a travel path around the bed, if you have access to a bathroom,” said Patel.READ MORE: Homeless Man Found Dead with Gunshot Wounds Near Creek Trail
The information is all listed in great detail on the Inn at Golden Gate’s website. But Garcia claims in his lawsuit that when trying to book he found “insufficient information…to independently assess” whether the room was right for him.
The complaint Samuel Love filed against the Handlery Hotel also claims “insufficient information … to assess [a room’ independently.”
The law firm behind both lawsuits is San Diego-based Potter Handy. The firm has more than a thousand ADA filings this year alone.
“I believe they are running a mill. They are attacking as many hotels as they can,” said Raj Patel.
“The way the ADA works is it’s only enforced privately. The only way that it can happen is that people do that,” said Dennis Price, an attorney with Potter Handy. In a previous interview, Price told KPIX that website accessibility became a more urgent issue during the pandemic.
“Many of my clients have severe disabilities that would have made it potentially very dangerous for them to go out. And so they were doing a lot more stuff on the internet,” said Price.
Activist Ruthee Goldkorn, who runs the disabled access consulting firm No Barriers, finds nothing wrong with that.
“If they choose not to comply, then there has to be a point where you have to get their attention,” explained Goldkorn. “Not having an accessible website is a barrier to commerce. So once again sir, Econ 101. Take my money, please!”
KPIX asked Goldkorn: “Hotels have been hard hit by the pandemic and some people say that’s a double whammy. You are really knocking these folks out of business. How do you respond to that?”
“No one is putting anyone out of business. I have a shirt on my wall that says accessibility is a right, not a privilege,” replied Goldkorn. “And whether it’s a major hotel chain or a boutique hotel there are legal requirements. These are not new laws.”
Jon Handlery, who has been sued before and usually just settles, got fed up this time. He pushed back and won. A federal judge dismissed Love’s complaint.
“The judge threw it out. She looked at the website and determined I was in compliance,” said Handlery.
Prabha Patel is still battling it out, but she remains confident.
“The case will be dropped, because I know my rules, ok?” said Patel.MORE NEWS: Repairs Finish Early on Ramp Between I-80 and Highway 101
Potter Handy lawyer Dennis Price got back to KPIX 5 Monday afternoon, saying they are not able to comment on pending cases and that none of their clients were interested in being interviewed.