Legislative, Regulatory Fixes for ADA Debacle Unclear
As credit unions try to fight disability lawsuits they believe are an abuse of the legal system, it became even clearer Wednesday that a legislative fix won’t come soon.
At least two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were deeply divided during a Wednesday hearing over whether legislation is needed to make changes to the civil legal system that has allowed plaintiffs to sue credit unions over website compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“I’m frustrated when this system is used not to correct a harm, but to inflict one,” said Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), discussing what he believes is abuse of the system.
However, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said there is a need for more corporate accountability, adding that legislation to make it more difficult for people to file suit simply would stack the deck in favor of corporate America.
More than 20 lawsuits have been filed against credit unions over the accessibility of their websites. At least 23 were filed by the same two law firms on behalf of the same plaintiff.
Credit union trade groups contend that the lawsuits are an abuse of the legal system and are looking to the Justice Department and Congress to correct the situation.
“Credit unions want to make sure their members have accessibility to the services they need, however abusive frivolous lawsuits can have a chilling effect forcing an institution to cut services due to litigation risk,” Brad Thaler, NAFCU’s vice president of legislative affairs, wrote in a letter to the committee.
“If credit unions were approached with ways to increase access to any product or services for members with disabilities, they very likely would take appropriate steps necessary to address those concerns,” CUNA President/CEO Jim Nussle told the committee in a letter. “However, instead they have been immediately threatened with litigation brought under the ADA that targets highly technical alleged violations, based on unclear requirements for compliance.”
However, no solution to the problem seems to be moving quickly.
Grassley on Wednesday touted his Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, which would make it clear judges can impose sanctions on attorneys who abuse the process.
Grassley introduced that bill in January, but it has not moved out of committee.
Credit unions also are urging the House to act on legislation that would give businesses time to make accommodations before an ADA lawsuit could be filed. The two trade groups have asked that the legislation, which does not address websites, be expanded to include them.
And more than 60 members of both parties have written to the Justice Department to finalize rules that govern ADA compliance on websites.
In 2010, the Department of Justice issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking setting ADA standards for businesses with websites. Last year, the Obama Administration opened the comment period for rules.
Subsequently, the Trump Administration placed the rules on the inactive list.
NAFCU and CUNA officials have been pressing the Justice Department to re-start the rulemaking process
Witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing were divided over whether there is a problem with the civil justice system.
The huge increase in civil suits means that “American businesses are forced to settle frivolous claims involving consumers who did not suffer any real injury,” said John Beisner, an attorney with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom , who was testifying for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
However, Myriam Gilles, vice dean of the Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University blasted proposed legislative changes.
“Rather than waste time on these wrongheaded proposals that serve only to place more obstacles in the path to justice, this committee should seek to increase citizens’ access to courts, promote transparency and accountability in the civil justice system, and ensure that every American can vindicate her Seventh Amendment right to trial by civil jury,” she told the Judiciary Committee.