ADA Lawsuits Against CUs More Than Double in a Month

The number of lawsuits filed in Virginia District Courts against credit unions over the accessibility of their websites has risen from nine to more than 20 in the last four weeks, court documents show.

All of the suits — at least 23 at the time of publication — were filed by the same two law firms on behalf of the same plaintiff. Many are so new the defendants haven’t yet filed formal responses to the complaints against them. Four appear to have already been voluntarily dismissed.

In terms of size, the defendants run the gamut. Some are small, like Portsmouth Schools Federal Credit Union, which has $2.1 million in assets and about a thousand members. Others are huge, including Navy Federal Credit Union, which has $84 billion in assets and 7.4 million members. Navy Fed’s case was dismissed on November 3.

"Navy Federal is committed to serving the needs of all of our members. Providing them equal access to all of our products and services and our digital platforms is of upmost importance,” a Navy Federal spokesperson told CU Times.

There may be more lawsuits coming, according to Meredith Olmstead, CEO and founder of credit union digital marketing firm Social Stairway. Olmstead said she’s aware of 10 to 20 credit unions outside Virginia that have received demand letters in the last two weeks or so. She could not confirm whether the letters were from the same law firms representing the plaintiff in the Virginia cases.

According to court documents, the complaints in the existing suits center around claims that credit unions’ websites violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability for equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations in places of public accommodation. The Department of Justice's ADA website states that discrimination includes failing to modify policies, practices or procedures to make things accessible, unless doing so would create an undue burden. 

That discrimination includes, among other things, failing to embed code that allows screen readers to vocalize descriptions of graphics on credit union websites, according to the lawsuits. Without certain modifications, visually impaired users can't determine what's on a credit union's site and in turn can't browse a site, look for locations, learn about amenities or determine which branch to visit, they alleged.

However, what exactly makes a site ADA compliant may be tricky to identify, some experts say, because the Department of Justice, which enforces the ADA, hasn’t promulgated regulations about how ADA-compliant websites should work

In lieu, conversations about site accessibility tend to revolve around standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, which is administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics, Japan's Keio University and China's Beihang University. One particular version of those standards, called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA, gets most of the attention, experts say

Worried credit unions may turn to their web developers for answers about whether the sites are accessible, but Olmstead is wary of that approach. Independent auditors and live user testing might provide better insights, she said.

“A company that's created your website for you, they're not objective. They have an interest in you believing that your website is compliant, it’s performing well — you know, there's nothing wrong with it,” she said. 

Credit union websites have to be accessible to the disabled, she stressed. But not all web developers prioritize that need, she said.

“A lot of these developers, they have no clue how to program compliant websites,” Olmstead said.

“All they want to do is put out the quickest, cheapest product that they can to close the most credit union websites and make the most money, but they don't really care about if you can monetize that credit union website, if it’s defective, if you can get leads from it, if you can find it on search,” she added.

Some credit unions may need to reassess their own priorities as well, Olmstead noted.

“Credit unions should be spending $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 to redevelop a website. These are digital assets that are the branch that never closes, the salesperson that never goes to sleep,” she explained. “I'm constantly running into credit union people who are like, ‘Oh that's too much money,’ and I'm like, ‘Okay, you’ll spend $1.2 million on new branch, just for brick and mortar, but you don't want to spend $50,000 on a website?”

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