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Websites Put Banks at Risk Of Lawsuits

3 min read

The Arkansas Bankers Association on Sept. 29 issued a warning to its members that a Pittsburgh law firm was firing off letters to banks accusing them of having websites that aren’t compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ABA said the law firm, Carlson Lynch Sweet Kilpela & Carpenter LLP, wants banks and other companies to make their websites ADA compliant and to pay a settlement for attorneys’ fees and costs — which could be tens of thousands of dollars. If those actions aren’t taken, a lawsuit could follow, as it has against companies such as Toys “R” Us Inc. and Foot Locker Inc.

“We have reason to believe the number of these lawsuits will rapidly climb and we want our Arkansas Bankers to be on alert,” Bill Holmes, CEO and president of the ABA, wrote.

Holmes told Arkansas Business recently that two Arkansas banks had received the demand letter from the law firm, but no lawsuits have been filed.

An attorney from Carlson Lynch didn’t return a call for comment.

Disability lawsuits over companies’ websites have been on the rise nationwide. Carlson Lynch has filed more than 40 federal lawsuits since the beginning of 2015, most of them in Pennsylvania, according to court records. Other laws firms have also been filing similar suits against companies across the country.

So far Carlson Lynch hasn’t filed a lawsuit in Arkansas, but the firm is representing a blind Little Rock woman who challenged a retailer’s website and was instead sued.

In December, Carlson Lynch sent Mardel Inc. of Oklahoma City a settlement letter on behalf of Lori Hunter, whose visual impairment kept her from accessing the Christian retailer’s website. The letter asked Mardel to bring its website into ADA compliance and to pay attorneys’ fees and costs.

Mardel responded by suing Hunter in U.S. District Court in Little Rock in July. The retailer wants a judge to rule that the ADA requirements don’t apply to its website. If that doesn’t happen, Mardel wants a judge to say “what, if any, legal standard governs its obligations to comply with the ADA in the operation of the Website.”

Mark Weber, a law professor at the DePaul University College of Law who has taught a course in disability law, said a dispute exists between courts over whether a section of the ADA actually covers commercial websites.

Congress passed the ADA in 1990, when “websites weren’t anything that people were concerned about,” he said.

“In fact, there are currently no legally binding technical standards that define what is required for a private entity’s website to be accessible in accordance with Title III of the ADA, if such compliance with the Title III of the ADA is even required,” said attorney Phil Richards of Tulsa, who represented Mazzio’s LLC in a lawsuit filed in February against the Carlson Lynch law firm. That case was quickly dismissed.

Carlson Lynch said in its letter to Mardel’s that the company’s website violated the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which are internationally accepted standards for website accessibility.

Such accessibility would, for instance, require coding that allows screen-reading software to describe images on the website, said Kathy Wahlbin, CEO of Interactive Accessibility of Boston, which provides ADA website consulting services.

“The screen reader produces an auditory version of what a visual user would see on the screen plus additional information to help them navigate the site,” Wahlbin said.

Weber, the DePaul law professor, said the lawyers for their blind clients have a persuasive argument. “It’s really not that difficult to make the websites accessible,” he said.

And when it’s been done, it makes accessing the web easier for people with disabilities. “It’s a big deal for someone who’s got a visual disability,” Weber said.

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