Carlson Lynch Prevails in Latest Move in Web Accessibility Battle

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Pittsburgh law firm Carlson Lynch Sweet & Kilpela LLP scored a win in its ongoing campaign to force businesses to make their websites accessible to the blind when a California federal court this week dismissed a case against it.

Calabasas, Calif.-based power tools retailer Harbor Freight Tools USA Inc. asked a federal district court to confirm whether its website is subject to accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Carlson Lynch moved to dismiss the case, and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted the motion.

The court said Harbor Freight can’t bring a declaratory relief claim against Carlson Lynch because the law firm has no rights under the ADA. Carlson Lynch isn’t a protected class member and can only bring ADA claims on behalf of people with disabilities, not on its own behalf.

It follows, then, that Harbor Freight can’t turn around and bring an ADA-related claim against the firm because it lacks a “legally cognizable interest” in the outcome, the court said.  The fact that Carlson Lynch represents people with disabilities didn’t suffice as far as the court was concerned.

Despite the fact that there is no federal standard spelling out the duties of website operators under the ADA to make their sites accessible, Carlson Lynch has been sending demand letters against well-known retailers for alleged violations of the ADA since 2015. It has filed at least 18 complaints against them.

The fight against the law firm began with a complaint filed by restaurant chain Mazzio’s LLC, which was withdrawn two days later.  After that, Harbor Freight swooped in and didn’t back out.

Now, Harbor Freight must see how Carson Lynch’s complaint, filed against it on behalf of two individuals and an accessibility advocacy group in Pennsylvania, will play out. A federal district court in that state has allowed the complaint to proceed.

It’s possible the Department of Justice could clear things up by issuing ADA accessibility regulations for business websites. But there’s a long wait for that. The regulations aren’t due to be published until 2018.