When most businesses think about websites and accessibility-related lawsuits, the first thing that obviously comes to mind will be claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
ADA lawsuits aren’t the only type of suit that can be brought against your business for it’s website or mobile presence based on accessibility claims, however. There have been an increase in lawsuits citing violations of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) when it comes to site accessibility, too.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at why FHA accessibility lawsuits happen, what we know about accessibility suits in 2020, and what you can do to protect your business.
We covered this topic on a September 30th Webinar with a presentation by guest speaker attorney Drew Sorrell of Lowndes Law. For additional content, access the presentation slides here.
What Is aN FHA Lawsuit?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, disability, color, familial status, and national origin. This goes both for renting and selling properties for public and private housing, and it covers both owners and “associated” persons that will live in the home.
It also protects financing, zoning practices, and advertising.
Does the FHA Apply to websites and Apps?
Like the ADA, the FHA is a civil rights lawsuit that ultimately comes down to providing accessibility of housing.
While the ADA is focused on accessibility to businesses across all industries, which is why it’s most often cited for accessibility-related digital lawsuits, companies in the housing industry can also be sued under FHA for an inaccessible website or app.
If someone is unable to use a website that they need to apply for housing (including to submit loan forms, rental applications, and more), you may have an FHA claim on their hands.
We know that in some cases, we know that the housing industry is targeted with these suits for several reasons:
- Websites are easy to visit to assess accessibility function and compatibility
- Many of these sites have complex functionality with a security-first focus, making it more difficult to maintain the WCAG criteria
- Housing sites often are connected to large property management firms with bigger budgets, which may be attractive to plaintiff law firms that are suing for profit rather than activism
- The housing industry has a history of lawsuits for physical inaccessibility; app and website accessibility is the next big challenge for the Fair Housing Act
WEbsite and App Accessibility Lawsuit trends in 2020
In 2019, we saw 2,235 lawsuits focusing on digital accessibility filed under the ADA. Despite a drop in lawsuits in the first half of 2020, likely brought by issues with filings during the first month of Covid-19 lockdown, ADA digital lawsuits for websites and apps have rebounded in the second half of 2020. Plaintiff law firms are now filling lawsuits at twice the pre-Covid-19 lockdown rate - over 100 last week. State cases for California’s Unruh and Florida’s FHA have also begun to increase.
Certain industries receive more lawsuits than others, including retail, restaurant, real estate, and banking businesses. Additionally, multiple lawsuits may be filed against a single company, especially if that company manages multiple brands and websites.
Note that mobile app accessibility lawsuits make up 20% of digital accessibility claims as of midyear 2020, so your mobile app needs to be up to date, too.
What You Can Do to Prevent FHA Lawsuits for your Websites?
With many lawsuits citing the WCAG 2.1, it’s essential to focus on these particular guidelines to protect your business instead of focusing on “quick fixes” like widgets and overlays, which don’t prevent lawsuits (we saw over 100 in the first six months of the year alone).
You want to ensure that your site and mobile app not only include accessibility features, but that they’re designed to incorporate all of the WCAG 2.1 guidelines from the ground up.
To see where you’re standing, we strongly recommend creating an accessibility testing program to catch issues, including blind spots that automated audits might miss.
Know your Accessibility Laws by state and By industry
Online accessibility is becoming increasingly important for businesses as more people conduct personal business online and through apps. Knowing and documenting if your digital assets are accessible can help create a defense if you face lawsuits under the ADA or other accessibility laws like Unruh California or the FHA. Know which laws apply to your company.
If you receive an FHA or ADA lawsuit or legal claim, your best bet is to consult with experienced legal counsel who can guide you.
UsableNet has 20 years of experience as a trusted partner for website accessibility. To read how UsableNet helped one company in the real estate industry, check out the case study, "NYC Real Estate Company Makes Website Accessible in Weeks with UsableNet Assistive."