Update: ADA Website Accessibility Claims Asserted Against Illinois Credit Unions
By: Katherine Romano Schnack, Senior Compliance and Corporate Counsel
* This is an update to an earlier blog post on June 21, 2017 about the issue of website accessibility claim under the ADA.
A number of Illinois credit unions recently have received letters alleging that the credit union’s failure to provide an accessible website for the visually impaired violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The ADA provides that places of public accommodation, such as credit unions, must comply with accessibility requirements. Plaintiff’s attorneys are threatening to file lawsuits alleging ADA violations if the website of the credit union is not accessible using technology that assists the visually impaired, such as screen reader technology.
The issue of website accessibility has become increasingly important over recent months, with plaintiffs filing lawsuits nationwide alleging website accessibility violations under the ADA. The federal court ruling on June 12, 2017, in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. (S.D. Fla. June 12, 2017), was the first federal court order granting injunctive relief and attorney’s fees for a website accessibility violation of the ADA by a place of public accommodation. The Winn-Dixie decision cites the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the standard for website accessibility for places of public accommodation and experts agree that this is the best standard to use at this time. The WCAG is developed by a consortium of private organizations and serves as the industry standard on website accessibility.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued website accessibility standards for government agencies but has not yet issued any standard for places of public accommodation. DOJ recently placed the regulation on inactive status, meaning that there is no expectation of a regulation to be issued soon. While there is a regulatory void, plaintiff’s attorneys are aggressively pursuing claims against retailers, financial institutions, and other places of public accommodation. CUNA and the Leagues are seeking action legislatively to address this issue.
To complicate the situation, there is also a disagreement among federal courts over whether websites must be accessible in all circumstances. Some courts have found that websites only have to meet accessibility requirements when tied to a business with brick-and-mortar facilities, or if the website impairs the ability to receive the business’ goods and services. The federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Illinois, has held that websites can be considered places of public accommodation and be subject to the ADA accessibility requirements even if the website is not connected to a physical place of business.
What Credit Unions Can Do
If you have received a letter from an attorney threatening to file a website accessibility claim against your credit union, recommended actions include:
- Notify your insurer/bond carrier.
- Consult with your credit union’s attorney.
- Engage IT professionals, compliance, and risk teams to review the WCAG and examine the credit union website’s compliance with those guidelines.
If your credit union has not received a letter threatening to file an ADA claim, it is still advised to perform the website accessibility assessment and take appropriate steps to comply with current WCAG standards.
 While the Illinois Credit Union League can provide general information about this issue, League attorneys cannot represent credit unions or provide legal advice to your particular credit union about these claims. Credit unions should seek their own legal counsel to represent them in the defense of these claims.