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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Supreme Court tosses disability tester case

The justices declined to rule on a key enforcement mechanism for the Americans with Disabilities Act after the case was voluntarily withdrawn.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court turned down an opportunity to limit the possibility of bringing disability lawsuits on Tuesday, after a woman who has sued more than 600 hotels dropped her pending case.

Disability testers like Deborah Laufer seek out businesses to check their compliance with accommodations required under the Americans for Disabilities Act, without the intention of using their services.

Laufer is visually impaired, has limited use of her hands, and uses a wheelchair. Under the ADA, hotels are required to provide accommodations to make sure Laufer can use their facilities just like anyone else.

The goal of Laufer’s complaints is to force hotels to share more information about their accommodations so people with disabilities do not have experiences similar to hers. She started as a tester after having to sleep in her car after booking hotels that could not accommodate her.

Acheson Hotels was one of the hundreds of hotels Laufer sued. She asked for a court order forcing the hotel to modify its online reservation services to comply with the ADA. The hotel in Maine claimed Laufer, who lives in Florida, should not be able to sue because she never actually intended to stay at the property.

A judge sided with Acheson, but the First Circuit reversed. At the Supreme Court in October, the justices debated if ADA testers should have standing to bring these claims; however, it wasn’t clear there was a case for the justices to decide. 

After the justices agreed to hear the case, Acheson sold the hotel. Its website has been updated to comply with the ADA.

In July, the a federal court in Maryland suspended Laufer’s lawyer, Tristan Gillespie, for defrauding hotels by lying in fee petitions and during settlement negotiations. In addition, Gillespie funneled money to the father of Laufer’s grandchild for investigative work he never did, raising the prospect that either Gillespie, Laufer, or both, got a cut of the money.

These circumstances led Laufer to dismiss her suit. 

"We are sensitive to Acheson’s concern about litigants manipulating the jurisdiction of this Court. We are not convinced, however, that Laufer abandoned her case in an effort to evade our review," Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in the opinion for the court.

"She voluntarily dismissed her pending ADA cases after a lower court sanctioned her lawyer," Barrett wrote in her opinion. "She represented to this Court that she will not file any others. Laufer’s case against Acheson is moot, and we dismiss it on that ground. We emphasize, however, that we might exercise our discretion differently in a future case."

Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Clarence Thomas filed concurring opinions, and the remainder of the justices joined Barrett's opinion.

Although Thomas sided with the rest of the court, he said in his concurring opinion that he believed the case should not be dismissed as moot, because “there is no question” they have the authority to address Laufer’s standing.

“Beyond answering this question for our colleagues on the Courts of Appeal and District Courts, we should answer it for Acheson Hotels, which has spent significant time and resources fully briefing a question that will now go unanswered,” Thomas wrote.

The George H. W. Bush appointee said that Laufer lacks standing because her claim does not assert a violation of her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He added that the Reservation Rule does not create an entitlement to accessibility information, as Laufer argued.

“Laufer does not even harbor ‘some day’ intentions of traveling to Maine to visit the Coast Village Inn. Her lack of intent to visit the hotel or even book a hotel room elsewhere in Maine eviscerates any connection to her purported legal interest in the accessibility information required by the Reservation Rule,” Thomas wrote.

Laufer told the justices that Acheson only wanted the lawsuit to move forward to challenge tester standing.

Kelsi Brown Corkran, an attorney with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law representing Laufer, said the hotel was attempting to upend how the court has defined discriminatory intent. 

Acheson said the issue was likely to come before the justices again so they might as well decide it now.

Adam Unikowsky, an attorney with Jenner & Block representing Acheson, said people like Laufer have harmed small businesses in their pursuits, clogging up courtrooms. Unikowsky asked the justices for clarification over how these claims can be brought. 

In Jackson's separate concurring opinion, she expressed concerns with the vacatur of the Court of Appeals’ judgment, but recognized that it is established practice when a case is moot.

“Because mootness and vacatur involve different legal analyses, I think courts should address them separately. Moreover, at least in theory if not in practice, vacatur does not — and cannot — automatically follow from mootness,” the Joe Biden appointee wrote.

Follow @Megwiththenews Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Civil Rights

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