‘Frivilous’ Lawsuits Target Business Websites

abc15.com

The blind person alleges that the text to audio on the website isn’t compatible and therefore he cannot use it.

There’s a new wave of disability-access lawsuits rolling into Arizona and finding businesses to sue is now as simple as surfing the internet.

Across the country, plaintiffs and attorneys have been testing cases filed against businesses whose websites they claim discriminate against people with disabilities.

Those lawsuits are beginning to hit Valley businesses.

So far, ABC15 has discovered a dozen cases filed by two different attorneys in Arizona federal court this year.

“It’s the next frontier of ADA litigation,” said Lindsay Leavitt, a Phoenix attorney with Jennings, Strouss & Salmon, who has handled hundreds of disability-access lawsuits in recent years. “I expect it to explode in the next 12 to 18 months.”

Leavitt expects thousands of these lawsuits will be filed in the next few years.

These website-related lawsuits are a departure from the tens-of-thousands of complaints filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act that have targeted brick-and-motor business locations for issues like a lack of accessible parking spaces, ramps and bathroom stalls.

Instead, the newer complaints allege business websites aren’t compatible with software used by the blind and deaf; or that the websites don’t offer the same goods and services to individuals with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.

The civil rights law has been updated and amended over the years, but it does not contain specific requirements for websites. Attorneys said that still up for interpretation by the courts, and judges across the country handling the cases differently.

“It’s a developing area of laws and plaintiffs are taking advantage of this and trying to squeeze out quick settlements,” Leavitt said. “It costs a lot more to defend a case than just write a settlement check.”

That’s something Valley businesses are now learning as some lawsuits seek thousand of dollars in damages and fees.

“They’re demanding that we pay at least $10,000 and shut our website down until it can be corrected,” said Lance Muzslay, owner of Sole Sports Running Zone stores in the Valley.

“It just seems like a shake-down scheme that’s a noble law to try and extract money out of us,” he said.

Muzslay was sued by a plaintiff named James Close and his attorney Jospeh Charles, who together have sued five Arizona businesses alleging website-accessiblity issues.

Reached by ABC15 via phone, Charles declined to comment.

But according to his intial complaint, Close is a blind man who lives in Texas and was unable to fully navigate the Sole Sports website with his specialized software.

Muzslay said he was never contacted before he was served with a lawsuit and had no idea there was any issue with his website, which he said accounts for less than 10 percent of his revenue.

The running store owner said he also was shocked by the number of mistakes made by the attorney in the lawsuit against him. At first, Charles accused Muzlay of running “Cigarking.com,” a website he sued in another case.

“Seemed like a copy-and-paste job,” Muzslay said. ” It seems like a frivolous lawsuit but it costs real money to respond.”

In another set of Arizona cases, a woman named Theresa Brooke is suing hotels with the help of attorney Peter K. Strojnik.

In recent years, the two have sued hundreds of hotels in Arizona and California for not having pool lifts. Their seven website-related lawsuits allege that hotel websites don’t allow Brooke to book wheelchair-accessible rooms.

The lawsuits allege that’s discrimination because able-bodied individuals are able to book regular rooms online.

Strojnik declined to comment on the lawsuits.

If his name sounds familiar, it’s because ABC15 has reported dozens of stories about Strojnik’s father, who has the same first and last name.

The elder Strojnik sued Valley 1,700 businesses last year over handicap parking signs. Those cases were dismissed by a judge after ABC15’s reports prompted an intervention by the Attorney General’s Office.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at dbiscobing@abc15.com.

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