The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that a disabled Florida resident has standing to sue a Maryland hotel under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), despite that Florida resident (the “plaintiff” ) never intending to stay at the hotel.
In Laufer v. Naranda Hotels, LLC,the plaintiff alleged that Naranda Hotels, LLC (“Naranda”) violated Title III of the ADA because a third-party hotel reservation website did not provide sufficient information regarding the accessibility of Naranda’s hotel rooms. The plaintiff argued that Naranda violated the “Hotel Reservation Regulation,” 28 C.F.R. §36.302(e)(1)(ii), which concerns the responsibilities of a hotel owner “with respect to reservations made by any means, including . . . through a third party.”
The United States District Court for the District of Maryland ruled that the plaintiff lacked standing to sue because her travel plans were too indefinite to establish an injury, and dismissed the lawsuit.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit noted that the plaintiff is a “self-professed ‘tester’ who has filed hundreds of similar lawsuits throughout the country,” who visited third-party hotel reservation websites only to ascertain whether the sites satisfied the ADA, the Hotel Reservation Regulation and the plaintiff’s needs.
The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, holding that the plaintiff’s allegations of informational injury, i.e., that violations of the Hotel Reservation Regulation deprived the plaintiff of the information required to make meaningful choices for travel, established the plaintiff’s standing to sue. In so doing, the Fourth Circuit rejected contrary District of Maryland case law and contrary case law from other district and circuit courts. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff’s allegation of informational injury was sufficient to confer standing because she alleged that she failed to obtain information that must be publicly disclosed pursuant to a statute.
The Fourth Circuit’s ruling conflicts with rulings from the Second, Fifth, and Tenth Circuit Courts, which have held that plaintiffs lacked standing where they failed to sufficiently allege or prove an intention to book hotel rooms. The Fourth Circuit’s ruling aligns with decisions of the First and Eleventh Circuit Courts, both of which held that plaintiffs need not intend to stay at the hotel that committed the alleged violation in order to possess standing to sue. Laufer was the plaintiff not only in the Naranda case in the Fourth Circuit, but also in the cases from the First, Fifth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits.
Although this decision binds federal courts in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, other district courts will remain bound by their respective Circuit Court’s precedent. This decision will likely encourage forum-shopping by plaintiffs, who will undoubtedly try to avoid unfavorable courts.
The Supreme Court has been called upon to resolve the Circuit split on “standing” and the related sufficiency of allegations of “informational injury.” Acheson Hotels, LLC, the defendant bound by the First Circuit’s adverse decision involving the same plaintiff in the Naranda case, petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States for review of the exact question of whether a tester has Article III standing to challenge a place of public accommodation’s failure to provide information on its website, despite lacking any intention of visiting. A number of amici curaie have supported Acheson Hotels, LLC’s cert petition, including the United States Chamber of Commerce, and Laufer’s response is due February 27, 2023. If cert is granted, a decision would not be rendered until next Term.
The legal landscape involving digital accessibility claims changes quickly as courts are called on to apply laws and legal principles established before the internet was used for daily activities. Attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s Accessibility Group regularly advise clients on digital accessibility matters in the quickly changing legal environment. Not only do we represent clients in connection with litigation relating to digital accessibility, we also draft and review digital accessibility policies and procedures, providing clients with advice to avoid litigation.