WASHINGTON (CN) — Deborah Laufer has sued more than 600 hotels for violating federal accommodations laws, but her streak might end at the Supreme Court next week when one of those hotels tests her ability to enforce her rights.
Laufer has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, hotels are required to provide her with accommodations.
However, Laufer has found out the hard way, they often do not. She has even had to sleep in her car, she claims, after discovering the hotel she booked wouldn't accommodate her disability.
Making it her mission to prevent that from happening to her or anyone else in the future, Laufer became a tester.
The term refers to people who seek out a business to test its compliance with laws, rather than to purchase goods or services. Testers who bring suits like Laufer's generally don't plan to use the service they claim has discriminated against them, but instead aim to force businesses to offer the legally required accommodations to benefit future customers.
“Most people can’t take on a fight every time they are trying to plan a trip or book a hotel,” a panel of disability anti-discrimination law scholars told the court. “Who wouldn’t find it exhausting enough to have to call ten hotels to ask awkward questions just to find out if they can even use the services?”
Experts in the field say those hurdles often discourage people with disabilities from traveling, and testers help to break down those barriers.
In that way, the scholars say, testers are essential to enforcing the ADA.
“Businesses often do not comply without the realistic threat of litigation,” the scholars wrote. “Moreover, if a hotel were likely to comply based on a simple phone call, they would likely also remedy the problem immediately upon a complaint being filed — especially where, as here, a fix requires at most a few hours — which would make any attorneys’ fees and litigation cost to the hotel de minimis.”
Among the hundreds of hotel lawsuits Laufer has filed, the one heading before the Supreme Court names Acheson Hotels.
Laufer, who is from Florida, claims a small hotel in Maine run by Acheson failed to post accessibility information on its website. She filed a complaint accusing the hotel group of violating the ADA, seeking injunctive relief and an order forcing the hotel to modify its online reservation services.
Acheson fought the complaint, arguing Laufer wasn’t injured by its failure to provide accommodations information because she never actually intended to stay at the hotel.
The district court sided with Acheson but the First Circuit reversed the finding. Now the country's high court will decide if testers can bring suits against hotels for failing to supply accommodations information if they never intended to use the hotel’s services.
The hotel says Laufer doesn't have standing to bring a suit because she wasn’t injured.
“Laufer alleges that Acheson violated a federal regulation requiring hotels to include disability accessibility information on their websites,” Adam Unikowsky, an attorney with Jenner & Block representing the hotel, wrote in a brief. “However, Laufer has never visited Acheson’s hotel and has no intent to do so. Hence, the absence of accessibility information regarding that hotel did not, and will not, injure her.”
Acheson argues Laufer’s tester standing would open the floodgates to litigation from anyone who has access to the hotel’s websites.
“A non-disabled person will not use the wheelchair ramps and hence has no need for information about them,” Unikowsky wrote.
“However, because Laufer does not plan to visit Coast Village, she also has no need for information about wheelchair ramps there. The information has exactly the same utility to Laufer as to a non-disabled person: zero. If Laufer can nonetheless claim injury by being deprived of this information, anyone can.”
Laufer says her injury occurred when she encountered Acheson’s unlawful accessibility barrier.
“When Ms. Laufer visited Acheson’s online reservation services and found that Acheson had failed to provide the accessibility information necessary for her to enjoy the service as fully as non-disabled people, she personally experienced discriminatory treatment that inflicted injury in fact under Article III and that is actionable under Title III, regardless of her intent,” Kelsi Brown Corkran, an attorney with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law, wrote in Laufer’s brief.
Civil rights groups weighed in on the case, noting testers' history of investigating racial discrimination. The groups say discrimination deprives people of the equal treatment that's guaranteed by law.
“These principles were central to some of this Court’s most canonical cases that dismantled de jure segregation in the Jim Crow era,” civil rights groups wrote in a brief before the court.
“Most notably, Brown v. Board of Education was decided in part upon this Court’s recognition of the dignitary harms that segregation inflicted on Black students.”
The court’s answer to whether testers have standing under the ADA could trickle into other areas where these suits are filed, raising the stakes of the justices’ ruling. However, the challenge was almost removed from the court’s docket this summer.
Laufer says there’s no reason for the court even to hear the case because Acheson has since updated its website to comply with the ADA. She ended her case against Acheson and asked the justices to find the case moot. The justices declined.
The high court did not explain its decision not to moot the case and instead said the justices would review the issue during oral arguments. The court is scheduled to hear the case on Oct. 4.Follow @KelseyReichmann
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