A test case of another kind for the Supreme Court: Who can sue hotels over disability access

Oct 3, 2023, 9:11 PM

FILE - The U.S. Supreme Court is seen, Wednesday, Aug 30, 2023, in Washington. The Supreme Court is...

FILE - The U.S. Supreme Court is seen, Wednesday, Aug 30, 2023, in Washington. The Supreme Court is taking up a case Wednesday that could make it harder to sue hotels when their websites are not clear enough about their accommodations for people with disabilities. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)

(AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A few years back, Joseph Stramondo was a last-minute replacement as a conference speaker in Salt Lake City. He went online and made a reservation for a room accessible for people with disabilities.

“I figured, ‘OK, I should be set,’” Stramondo said.

But when he checked in, the room he was given looked like a standard room, without bars in the bathroom or a door wide enough to accommodate his wheelchair.

Returning to the front desk, Stramondo learned the room was accessible — for people with hearing loss.

The Supreme Court is taking up a case Wednesday that Stramondo, his wife, Leah Smith, and other people with disabilities worry could make it harder to learn in advance what accommodations are available that meet their needs.

The justices are being asked to limit the ability of so-called testers to file lawsuits against hotels that fail to disclose accessibility information on their websites and through other reservation services.

The information is required by a 2010 Justice Department rule. People who suffer discrimination can sue under the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990.

The issue in the Supreme Court case is whether Deborah Laufer, a woman with disabilities, has the right to sue a hotel in Maine that lacked the accessibility information on its website, despite having no plans to visit it. Laufer, who would not agree to an interview for this story, has filed some 600 similar lawsuits.

A district court dismissed her complaint, but the federal appeals court in Boston revived it. Appeals courts around the country have issued conflicting rulings over whether ADA testers have standing to sue if they don’t intend to go to the hotels.

Acheson Hotels and the business interests supporting it argue that Laufer’s admission that she wasn’t planning to visit the hotel should end the case. Acheson owned the hotel, the Coast Village Inn and Cottages in Wells, Maine, when Laufer filed her lawsuit, but has since sold it.

“What we’ve seen for the last 20 years is that people just sit at their house and troll through websites. Small businesses in particular have been targeted,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Responsibility.

On the other side of the case, civil rights groups fear a broad ruling for the hotel could limit the use of testers who have been crucial in identifying racial discrimination in housing and other areas.

It’s possible the Supreme Court could dismiss the case as moot without even reaching the main issue, though the hotel is urging the justices to reach a decision.

In the context of disabilities, testers can’t sue for money, just to get facilities to change their practices. That’s a critical role, Stramondo and Smith said.

Stramondo, a philosophy professor at San Diego State University, and Smith are each under 4 feet, and even a hotel room deemed accessible “doesn’t mean that it’s accessible for us,” Smith said, adding that they often turn over a room’s trashcan to use as a stepstool. Smith is the director of the National Center for Disability Equity and Intersectionality.

There’s no federal agency dedicated to enforcing the ADA. “And so we need to have some kind of enforcement mechanism. And the best one that I’ve seen is testers,” Stramondo said.

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A test case of another kind for the Supreme Court: Who can sue hotels over disability access