Supreme Court Throws Out Case That Could Have Altered Enforcement Of Disability Law

The Supreme Court has dismissed a major disability case that could have affected disabled individuals’ rights to sue a place of public accommodation for its failure to provide information about its accessibility on its website, deciding that the case is moot.

On Tuesday, the justices dismissed Acheson Hotels LLC v. Laufer, which the plaintiff, Deborah Laufer, had requested after voluntarily dropping her case.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett issued an opinion acknowledging the concerns of Acheson Hotels about “litigants manipulating the jurisdiction of this Court” but maintained the decision to not rule in the case.

“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,” Barrett wrote on Tuesday on behalf of the justices.

She added: “She voluntarily dismissed her pending ADA cases after a lower court sanctioned her lawyer. 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.”

Laufer, who is disabled, filed a lawsuit in 2020 against Acheson Hotels, which operates hotels in Maine, alleging that it failed to provide sufficient information about one of its hotels’ accessibility features on its website or reservation system — a requirement for places of public accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Laufer is a self-appointed ADA “tester,” meaning she goes on hotel websites and reservation systems to investigate whether they are in compliance with the ADA and takes legal action if they are not, even if she has no intention of visiting those establishments. She had filed hundreds of lawsuits against hotels over lack of compliance.

The Acheson Hotels case was initially dismissed in a U.S. District Court on the grounds that Laufer was not injured by the lack of accessibility information on the website since she didn’t intend to visit the hotel — a decision that was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit.

“Laufer’s feelings of frustration, humiliation, and second-class citizenry [are] ‘downstream consequences’ and ‘adverse effects’ of the informational injury she experienced,” the 1st Circuit said.

Echoing similar beliefs held by some other businesses, Acheson Hotels argued that many ADA lawsuits are frivolous and predatory and that there are “often better ways of ensuring compliance with the law than filing a lawsuit.”

But disability rights advocates emphasized the dangers of labeling ADA lawsuits as frivolous, pointing out that testers are vital to holding establishments accountable for ADA violations and that a ruling against Laufer would have detrimental effects on the enforcement of the federal law.

“It’s undoubtedly going to result in less enforcement of the ADA and a more inaccessible community, and businesses will be emboldened to continue to flaunt their requirements,” Michelle Uzeta, deputy legal director of the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund, told HuffPost in October. “Without the threat of any enforcement now, or with significantly reduced enforcement, there’s absolutely no incentive for businesses to comply with the law.”

The Supreme Court agreed to step in to decide whether Laufer had the right to sue the establishment when she didn’t intend to visit it. But when the court heard oral arguments in October, the focus shifted to discussing the mootness of the case, following Laufer’s request in July to drop the case and dismiss the appeals court decision.

Laufer dropped her case after accusations of misconduct against one of her lawyers and because the hotel, now under new ownership, has updated its website to comply with the ADA, The New York Times reported.

During the oral arguments, Acheson Hotels’ lawyer Adam Unikowsky encouraged the court to still rule in the case to provide more guidance for lower courts that have been split by “tester” cases, CNN reported.

But Justice Elena Kagan argued that the case was “dead as a doornail” and that a decision shouldn’t be made on such an important issue since Laufer had dropped the case and there was no longer a live controversy.

“This is, like, dead, dead, dead in all the ways that something can be dead,” she said in October. “And to use that case as the vehicle for deciding an important issue, an issue that probably is going to need to be decided at some point but surely could come up in a live case … I guess it just doesn’t seem like something that a court should be anxious to do.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion that he would have addressed the question the court was set to review and would not have ruled in Laufer’s favor.

“I would not reward Laufer’s transparent tactic for evading our review,” he wrote, adding that he did not believe that a 1982 decision that granted civil rights ‘testers’ the standing to sue under the Fair Housing Act, a precedent raised in arguments, applied to her case.

Barrett emphasized that even though the case has been dismissed, the court “might exercise our discretion differently in a future case.”