Tuesday, October 3, 2023
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Wednesday in a case testing whether a civil-rights tester has standing to sue a hotel for violating the ADA. Here's my preview, from the Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases (with permission):
Does an ADA tester have standing to sue a hotel for failing to provide information about the accessibility of its rooms on its online reservation system and on third-party hotel-reservation websites?
Deborah Laufer is a disabled person under the ADA: she is visually impaired; she has limited use of her hands; and she uses a wheelchair or cane to get around. In order to stay in a hotel, she requires certain accommodations. As a result, in order to plan travel, she needs to know whether hotels offer certain accommodations.
Laufer is also an ADA “tester.” This means that she researches and tests whether covered entities are complying with the ADA. In particular, Laufer tests whether hotels comply with the ADA’s requirement that places of “public accommodation” provide “reasonable modifications” to their facilities in order to accommodate individuals with disabilities. More particularly, Laufer tests whether hotels comply with the ADA’s Reservation Rule. That Rule, promulgated by the Attorney General pursuant to authority under the ADA, requires hotels to “[i]dentify and describe [their] accessible features . . . in enough detail to reasonably permit individuals with disabilities to assess independently whether a given hotel or guest room meets his or her accessibility needs.” 28 C.F.R. § 36.302(e)(1). As relevant here, the Rule requires hotels to identify and describe these features on their own online reservation systems and on third-party online reservation websites.
Laufer discovered that Acheson Hotels, which operated the Coast Village Inn and Cottages in Maine, did not identify whether it offered accessible rooms or the option of booking an accessible room. Laufer found this information lacking on Acheson Hotels’ reservation website “[o]n multiple occasions before filing suit.” She also found it lacking on third-party reservation websites that Acheson used.
Laufer sued Acheson for injunctive relief. (The ADA authorizes individuals to sue for violations of the Reservation Rule for injunctive and declaratory relief (which apply to alleged future harms), but not for monetary damages (which are backward-looking harms, or harms that already occurred).) She asked the court to order Acheson to modify its online reservation services to comply with the Reservation Rule. She also asked for attorney’s fees. She later amended her complaint to allege that she viewed Acheson’s reservation systems not only as a tester, but also because she “had plans to drive from Florida to Maine” to meet her sister and take her granddaughter to “tourist attractions, points of interest, [and] educational and historical sites.” She alleged that Acheson’s online reservation system “infringe[d] [her] right to travel free of discrimination,” “deprive[d] her of the information required to make meaningful choices for travel,” caused her to suffer “frustration and humiliation,” contributed to her “sense of isolation and segregation,” and deprived her of “the full and equal enjoyment” of Acheson’s services. She also alleged that she intended to view Acheson’s online reservation system again in the future to test its compliance with the Reservation Rule.
The district court dismissed the case. The court ruled that Laufer lacked standing, because, as a tester, it was “implausible” that she planned to visit Maine and that she could not “allege concrete harm” without “a genuine plan to make a reservation.” Laufer appealed; she also disclaimed any intent to travel to Maine. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed, and this appeal followed.
After the Court agreed to hear the case, Laufer moved to voluntarily dismiss it. Laufer argued that her attorney in different ADA cases was disciplined in those cases, and she didn’t want the allegations of misconduct against that attorney to distract from her claims in this case. (That attorney had (and has) no involvement in Laufer’s case before the Court; and her current attorneys in this case have not represented her in other cases.) Laufer voluntarily dismissed her complaint in the district court, and she filed a Suggestion of Mootness in this Court. As of this writing, the case is still on the docket and set for oral argument.
Under Article III of the Constitution, a plaintiff, in order to have standing to sue in federal court, must demonstrate (1) that they suffered a concrete and personal injury (2) that was caused by the defendant’s challenged conduct and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable court ruling. This case focuses on the first part, injury, and, in particular, whether a tester can assert a sufficient injury for standing.
The Supreme Court held in 1982, in Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, that testers had standing to challenge a landlord’s racial discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act. 455 U.S. 363 (1982). In that case, Havens Realty told a Black tester that they had no apartments available. But they told a White tester that they did. Despite the fact that the testers never intended to rent a unit, the Court specifically ruled that the Black tester had standing. The Court said that it didn’t matter that the tester didn’t intend to rent, so long as the tester asserted an “injury within the meaning of [the Act].”
Moreover, the Court has said that a plaintiff’s informational injury—a denial of information to which they have a legal right by federal statute—can, in some cases, suffice as a concrete injury to establish standing. For example, a plaintiff suffers a sufficient informational injury to sue to enforce government sunshine laws, like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This holds without regard to how the plaintiff intends to use the information.
But more recently, the Court held that a defendant’s failure to comply with statutory procedures alone is insufficient by itself to establish standing. The court held in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, that courts must still “independently decide whether a plaintiff has suffered a concrete harm under Article III”—a harm resulting from the intangible or procedural injury—even if federal law authorizes a plaintiff to sue to enforce statutory procedures. 141 S. Ct. 2190 (2021).
This case tests how TransUnion and like cases square with Havens Realty and cases recognizing standing based on a plaintiff’s informational harm.
Acheson argues first that Laufer lacks standing based on an informational harm. Acheson says that TransUnion requires a plaintiff to show concrete harm as a result of failing to receive information, and that Laufer did not show such a harm. It claims that Laufer doesn’t plan to visit Acheson hotels, and therefore information on accessibility is useless to her. And it contends that Laufer’s interest in protecting the rights of other individuals with disabilities is insufficiently personal to her to establish her standing.
Acheson argues next that Havens Realty does not support Laufer’s standing. It claims that the FHA at the center of Havens Realty granted the plaintiffs in that case a private cause of action to vindicate an informational right that was personal to them. In contrast, it says that the ADA “does not personally entitle [Laufer] to information” or “grant her a private cause of action to vindicate an informational right.”
Acheson argues further that Laufer lacks standing based on cases where plaintiffs have standing to enforce government sunshine laws. Acheson says that unlike those plaintiffs, Laufer is suing a private business (not the government) for a generalized harm (not a particularized harm to her) and under a statute that does not guarantee access to information (instead, it only requires hotels to provide that information).
Moreover, Acheson argues that Laufer lacks standing based on future stigmatic injuries. It claims that Laufer’s intended future views of Acheson’s website (the basis of her future stigmatic injury) is self-inflicted. And it says that her anticipated emotional harm is insufficient to establish Article III standing.
In short, Acheson claims that Laufer, as a tester, is seeking simply to enforce the ADA. But Acheson says that this is the job of the executive branch, not private testers.
Finally, Acheson argues that Laufer’s claim is moot, because she now has the information she sought. (The Coast Village Inn now provides this information on its online reservation system. It says, “We are not equipped at this time to provide ADA compliant lodging,” but that it “tak[es] ADA compliance seriously and will be quick to respond to any accessibility questions . . . .”) It urges the Court to dismiss Laufer’s case and rule for Acheson.
Laufer counters that the Court should dismiss the case as moot pursuant to her Suggestion of Mootness. But if it doesn’t, Laufer argues that she has standing under Havens Realty. She contends that the ADA applies not only to hotels, but also to the services they provide, including their online reservation systems. And she says that she suffered sufficiently concrete harm based on “Acheson’s failure to provide equal access” to its system, even if she did not rent a room from Acheson.
Laufer argues next that she doesn’t have to intend to reserve a room to establish a concrete harm, as the government would have it. She maintains that her views of Acheson’s reservation system alone are enough, because she “personally encounter[ed] the discriminatory informational barrier to full and equal enjoyment of Acheson’s reservation services.” She says that there is no “functional difference between Ms. Laufer clicking through and reviewing Acheson’s online reservation system and a would-be reservation maker doing the same thing.”
Laufer argues that her harm was every bit as personal as the harm in Havens Realty. She illustrates the point with this suggestion: “if the plaintiff in Havens Realty had encountered a sign on the realtor’s door (or, these days, its website) stating, ‘We have no apartments available for rent if you are Black,’” the plaintiff would have “‘personally’ experienced discriminatory treatment [even though] the realtor ‘had no idea who she was.’”
Laufer argues that the Court has recognized “many times over the last four decades [that] Havens Realty was correctly decided.” In particular, she says that the Court has recognized the “core tenant” of Havens Realty that “discriminatory treatment” is a cognizable harm, because it “perpetuat[es] archaic and stereotypic notions” or “stigmatiz[es] members of the disfavored group as inherently inferior” and therefore “can cause serious non-economic injuries to those personally denied equal treatment solely because of their membership in the disfavored group.” Laufer claims that Acheson inflicted these harms on disabled persons who wished to use its online reservation service just as “if Acheson had a practice of ignoring the existence of wheelchair users who approach the reservation desk in its lobby.” She says that history and tradition reflect these dignitary harms, and that they were recognized under the common law.
Laufer argues that tester plaintiffs don’t “abuse” the ADA. She says that because the ADA does not provide for money damages, disabled individuals cannot afford to challenge access barriers. Moreover, she claims that injunctive relief against violators of the Reservation Rule is ineffectual for most travelers, because by the time a court enters an injunction, the travel is complete. Laufer contends that Acheson and its amici would not have to worry about the volume of litigation if they simply complied with the Reservation Rule. And she says that Acheson and its amici’s concerns about unethical litigation practices “are irrelevant to the constitutional standing question” and readily addressed through court sanctions and other disciplinary action.
Finally, Laufer argues that her case is not moot on the basis that The Coast Village Inn updated its website, as Acheson contends, and now provides the information that she seeks. Laufer says that this point goes to the merits (whether the Inn’s website complies with the Reservation Rule) and not mootness. In any event, she claims that the Inn could remove the required information as soon as the Court rules the case moot, and that the case therefore falls within the “voluntary cessation” exception to mootness. She also says that third-party hotel-reservation websites still do not include the required information.
The government weighs in to offer a middle position. On the one hand, the government contends that “[t]his Court has long held that an individual who suffers a violation of a statutory right to be free from discrimination has standing to sue.” But on the other hand, the government claims that Laufer is not such a person. The government says that the ADA, unlike the FHA in Havens Realty, does not “provide a freestanding right to information.” Instead, under the ADA, “an individual . . . who merely views a hotel’s online reservation services without intending to use the service to make or consider making a reservation lacks standing . . . .” The government asserts that Laufer merely viewed Acheson’s site—and that she didn’t intend to use it—and that she therefore lacks standing.
This case tests the practical effectiveness of ADA testers of the Reservation Rule. That’s important, because, as Laufer’s amici point out, testers are critical to effective enforcement of the ADA. Laufer herself “has found and challenged” “hundreds of violations . . . over the last five years.” If testers like Laufer lack standing to challenge hotels’ online reservation systems for violating the Reservation Rule, enforcement of the Rule will suffer, and hotels will lack a key incentive to comply. (As Laufer points out, the ADA only allows injunctive relief, not monetary damages. And as she argues, as a practical matter injunctive relief under the Reservation Rule cannot provide actual relief for most travelers.)
On the other hand, Acheson and its amici argue that tester standing for the Reservation Rule will lead to voluminous and vexatious litigation and attorney misbehavior, as evidenced by some of Laufer’s other ADA cases. (Remember: Laufer’s attorney in some of her other ADA cases was disciplined for his conduct in those cases. Laufer herself moved to dismiss her complaint in this case so that this behavior would not distract from it.) Laufer has an easy answer: hotels should simply comply. But Acheson’s concerns could still tip the balance for this Court.
While the case does not obviously implicate tester standing in other contexts, and while Havens Realty does not appear to be under direct attack, the case could nevertheless impact future tester standing outside the narrow context here. That’s because the Court could write an opinion on Reservation Rule tester standing, one way or the other, that may spill over into other tester standing questions.