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Lawsuits target local businesses with websites deemed inaccessible to the visually impaired

A series of “cut and paste” lawsuits has reached the North Fork, affecting dozens of local businesses and prompting the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce to issue an “urgent alert” last week.

The lawsuits are aimed at businesses with websites that are considered inaccessible to the visually impaired, a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Local business owners were stunned to learn that their websites are subject to the same ADA regulations as their brick-and-mortar shops.

Federal court records show that a lawsuit was filed by James Murphy against the Preston House & Hotel in October. Mr. Murphy is described in court documents as a New York City resident who is visually impaired and legally blind, which requires him to use screen-reading software while browsing web content.

The suit was filed against the downtown Riverhead business for its “failure to design, construct, maintain and operate its website to be fully accessible to and independently usable by [Mr. Murphy] and other blind or visually impaired people,” and notes that “denial of full and equal access to its website and therefore denial of its products and services offered thereby” is a violation of his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to court records, Mr. Murphy filed 11 similar lawsuits between Oct. 1 and Nov. 7, including identical cases against Atlantis Marine World LLC in Riverhead and the Long Island Game Farm in Manorville.

Last week, the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce alerted its members to the legal action being brought against local businesses. In the memo, the chamber urged businesses to check with their web developers to make sure their sites comply with the ADA guidelines.

“We have two concerns,” said Chamber of Commerce president Bob Kern. “That people with disabilities are able to enjoy and benefit from present and future electronic technology and secondly, we’re concerned that businesses are being unfairly targeted not realizing they are non-compliant.”

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled people in the activities of places of public accommodations, meaning businesses that are generally open to the public. Although the language of the ADA doesn’t specifically mention the internet, websites are considered public accommodations.

According to Seyfarth Shaw LLP, a national law firm that tracks such cases, more than 10,000 ADA Title III lawsuits are filed per year and nearly half are filed in New York, California and Florida. 

“Businesses across the country feel under siege,” the firm’s website states. “Some businesses find themselves defending against investigations and enforcement actions brought by the U.S. Department of Justice. which can result in onerous remedial measures, large damage payments and civil penalties.”

“Most of the businesses have settled to avoid long, drawn-out lawsuits,” Mr. Kern said. “Who is this benefiting? The law firms or people with disabilities?”

A letter dated Feb. 11 from the law offices of Campolo, Middleton & McCormick LLP, who are representing The Preston House in the lawsuit, requests an extension to respond to the complaint until March 18. 

“The parties are involved in settlement discussions,” the letter states.

An attorney at the firm declined to comment on the pending litigation Monday.

Accessibility advocates say that the playing field should be leveled online, allowing users to view web content by using methods known as assistive technology, such as screen readers, closed captioning, transcripts and assistive keyboard interfaces.

“In today’s tech-savvy world, blind and visually impaired people have the ability to access websites using keyboards in conjunction with screen access software that vocalizes the visual information found on a computer screen or displays the content on a refreshable Braille display,” Mr. Murphy’s lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, approximately 8.1 million people in the United States are visually impaired, and about 400,000 visually impaired people live in New York.

This isn’t the first time local businesses have been hit with these types of lawsuits.

In 2018, Kathy Wu, a visually impaired woman from Brooklyn, filed similar lawsuits against at least eight local wineries, including Palmer Vineyards, Pindar Vineyards, Bedell Cellars, Jason’s Vineyard, Jamesport Vineyards, McCall Wines and Sannino Vineyard. Court records show all of these cases reached settlement in 2019.

Reached by phone Monday, Jeffrey Gottlieb, an attorney for Mr. Murphy, declined to comment. Mr. Gottlieb was also listed as an attorney for Ms. Wu, according to court records.

Plaintiffs can only get a maximum of $500 for each case under New York State law.

Tom Stebbins, executive director at the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York, said in an interview Monday that the Department of Justice, which creates regulations for the ADA, hasn’t set concrete rules for business owners to follow.

“Profit-seeking lawyers have jumped into the fray by filing all of these cut and paste lawsuits against a variety of industries,” he said. “It is clearly a lawyer-driven enterprise, not driven by disability advocates.”

Since the memo warning of the lawsuits was issued by the Riverhead Chamber, Danielle Nicholas, founder of web developing agency Dee Nick Media, Inc. has offered to help businesses bring their websites into compliance at no cost.