Business websites under legal pressure

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on May 10, 2018.


Kathryn Terry

The emphasis of Kathryn D. Terry’s litigation practice is in the areas of insurance coverage, labor and employment law and civil rights defense. She also represents corporations in complex litigation matters.

By Phillips Murrah Director Kathryn D. Terry

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to government programs and services.

The third section of ADA, Title III, addresses places of public accommodation, such as retailers, hospitals and state agencies. Under these rules, and in general, places of business are obligated to provide access to physical locations in the form of wheelchair ramps, signs that feature braille, and other means by which patronage of businesses is made possible for disabled persons.

Currently, similar attention is being focused on websites, as many businesses offer information and opportunities and conduct commerce via their website. Lawsuits are being brought claiming that these websites should be fully usable for persons with disabilities, just like brick-and-mortar locations.

To address Title III compliance, the World Wide Web Consortium developed an evolving set of standardized guidelines for improving accessibility to website content. The most recent, widely accepted version is called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA, commonly referred to as WCAG 2.0 AA, which recommend, among many suggestions, text alternatives to graphics for visual disabilities, and captions to audio for those with hearing impairments.

Within the past few years, growing exponentially in 2017, lawsuits on behalf of disabled persons have been filed claiming website-related violations of ADA Title III. Recently, the lawsuits have been coming in waves, with online retailers being the first obvious targets, followed by online financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions, both large and small.

While there are no laws mandating WCAG 2.0 AA compliance at this time, the absence of any regulatory requirement does not shield businesses from ADA liability under Title III. Most businesses that have more than 15 full-time employees are subject to the ADA, and even if a business has less than 15, Oklahoma’s state law still applies.

However, in Oklahoma, there is a new statute that requires prior notice and an opportunity to cure the website issues in advance of any litigation under state law only. Businesses should consider this statute carefully if they receive a demand or lawsuit.

Many businesses are smartly getting ahead of this issue by reviewing their websites to identify potential accessibility barriers and implementing WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines as part of regular IT upgrades.

Kathryn D. Terry is a director at the law firm of Phillips Murrah.