Town's lawyer in case said no clear standards exist for governments to follow.
A lawsuit filed in federal court against Longboat Key by a blind Daytona Beach man claims the town’s website is “deliberately indifferent” to provisions of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and seeks fixes and damages.
The lawsuit, filed March 8 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, specifies the town must “update all electronic documents made available to the public to remove barriers in order that individuals with visual disabilities can access the electronic documents to the full extent” of federal law. It also seeks damages determined at trial, court costs and legal fees.
Joel Price, whom the lawsuit describes as a blind U.S. Navy veteran who requires the use of a seeing-eye dog, is named as plaintiff against the town. He is also the plaintiff in nearly three dozen similar cases filed in the last 12 months against Florida towns, cities and counties in all three of Florida’s federal court districts, court records show. Far more suits have been filed in Price’s name against private companies, including Sarasota Kennel Club. Public records indicate Price is 56 years old.
Most of the lawsuits filed by Price open and close in a matter of a few months — one month in the case of an action against Osceola County last summer — and are frequently settled and dismissed before trial, court records show. Manatee County settled its lawsuit brought by Price in late 2018 for $16,000 ($15,000 in legal fees and $1,000 in damages) with a timeline of 14 months to improve website accessibility.
Price is represented by Miami attorney Juan Courtney Cunningham, whose website’s home page opens with the tagline “Fight Disability Discrimination.”
In a prepared statement, Cunningham said his firm and that of Scott R. Dinin “are working on behalf of our current clients and the entire disabled community in doing the work that the Department of Justice is unable to do. Transparency and access to government is at the cornerstone of our society and Florida Open Records laws create an urgency to ensure all people have access to barrier-free government program and services. Respect, equality, and accommodation is all our clients are seeking for Floridians.”
Cunningham didn’t answer questions about his client, Price.
Town Manager Tom Harmer said he couldn’t address specifics of the case because it was an active lawsuit but acknowledged the legal activity from one end of Florida to the other.
“We are not alone,” he said. “It’s been happening around the state, and now it’s happening locally.”
In June 2018, 103 members of the U.S. House of Representatives asked the U.S. Department of Justice to “state publicly that private legal action under the ADA with respect to websites is unfair and violates basic due process principles in the absence of clear statutory authority and issuance by the department of a final rule establishing website accessibility standards.” The House members also asked DOJ to “provide guidance and clarity with regard to website accessibility under the … ADA.''
The Justice Department last fall responded: “The Department has consistently taken the position that the absence of a specific regulation does not serve as a basis for noncompliance with a statute’s requirements.”
Attorney George Belohlavek, a member of an Apopka law firm that has defended dozens of governments in similar proceedings said it’s this “void” in regulations that makes compliance hard.
“The town has done its best to ensure accessibility for all its visitors,” he said, adding other governments “haven’t had the benefit of guidelines to follow.”
At the core of the lawsuit against the town is the formatting of electronic documents and information and their compatibility with text-to-voice reader devices. In Price’s arguments, he claims the town’s “online electronic document content is not available for persons who are blind or low sighted.”
In a Dec. 20 letter to the town — nearly identically to one he wrote in September to Hernando County officials who were sued Dec. 31 — Price asks the town to make electronic documents pertaining to the town’s budgets for 2015-2018, along with Town Commission agendas and related documents from 2016-2018, compatible with his reader device.
He also asks, “In addition to the specific documents listed here, can you also make the other electronic documents within your site accessible so that they will work with screen readers. ....”
On Jan. 4, Longboat Key Human Resources Director Lisa Silvertooth responded to Price, saying the specific documents requested were saved to a thumb drive sent to him via the U.S. Mail and confirmed they were compatible via a common screen reader. She also writes, “We continue our effort in making our website accessible. In the interim, and until such time as the website is fully functional in this regard, should you need any further documents, or encounter any additional barriers to access or unreadable documents, please notify us immediately in order that we can ensure that the barriers are removed from the website and that the information you are seeking is provided to you promptly.”
Price’s claim against the town says: “Plaintiff’s inability to access Defendant’s electronic documents has resulted in a ‘virtual barrier’ which has impaired, obstructed, hindered and impeded Plaintiff’s ability to become an involved citizen in Town of Longboat Key government.”
“The position for our client is that it had its site under remediation for more than two months,” before the lawsuit was filed, Belohlavek said.
Harmer said he couldn’t address the town’s plans for longboatkey.org. At least one local municipality, Bradenton Beach, has shuttered its website over fears of an ADA-related lawsuit. Following Manatee County’s settlement, the city ordered its website closed until it could be made ADA-compatible.
On longboatkey.org, documents such as past agendas and supporting materials no longer are linked from the town’s website Agenda & Minutes page. A request by the Longboat Observer for a 2016 document no longer on the site was met with an emailed response of the materials within an hour.