Subscribe

More North Coast winery website lawsuits end without settlements

More than half the dozens of recent federal lawsuits brought by one Florida man against North Coast wineries over accessibility of their websites have been dismissed, including nearly two dozen in the past 30 days. And more of these are getting resolved without settlements.

Arif Virji of Carle Mackie Power & Ross in Santa Rosa has been representing 10 winery clients in the North Coast cases. He said a judge’s pushback on plaintiff Andres Gomez’s legal team to show why the case against Napa Valley’s Raymond Vineyards should continue in federal court led to negotiations on the rest of the cases with Gomez’s legal team at the Center for Disability Access, run by Southern California law firm Potter Handy.

“We were able to argue that three other cases involving the same plaintiff had already been dismissed on motions to dismiss and that we would argue the same thing and seek costs for having to do so in all our cases,” Virji said. “That lead to dismissals of all our cases.”

The Journal reported in April that the North Coast was part of a growing wave of lawsuits focused mostly on wineries alleging that company websites were not compliant with federal and state laws requiring equal access to those with disabilities.

At stake are damages under the state’s version of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (known as Unruh) of $4,000 for each proven example that a website frustrated visitors using assistive tools such as screen readers. The ADA largely allows for damages of attorney’s fees.

Terms of court settlements are confidential. However, a parallel lawsuit against Potter Handy filed in state court April 11 by San Francisco and Los Angeles prosecutors asserts that the firm in the few thousand similar cases it has filed in recent years regularly asks for settlements north of $10,000, a choice many small businesses opt for as the cost to defend these cases can be $50,000–$100,000, according to that legal filing. That case is still pending.

Richard Idell of Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty in Napa said one of his cases was dismissed without settlement, and three more are pending.

According to court records, 27 cases filed on behalf of Andres Gomez in the Northern California District were dismissed since the beginning of July, and most all of them involved wine companies.

‘Disappointed in the federal judiciary’

Potter Handy attorney Dennis Price disputes the perception that the firm is dropping these cases.

“The federal courts have told us they’d prefer these cases be filed in state court. We've simply obliged. It makes no sense to have claims proceeding inefficiently in two forums,” Price told the Business Journal in an email. “While we're disappointed in the federal judiciary denying our clients a forum guaranteed to them by the First Amendment, it's simply untrue that we are unwilling to litigate in state courts. We are refiling there.”

In the Raymond Vineyards case, which was dismissed without settlement July 14, Price responded to Judge Jon Tigar’s order to show cause that the firm prefers to file in federal court “for a variety of reasons, some legal, some practical.”

Those reasons, Price wrote, include the federal system’s superior case-tracking system, better accessibility of federal courtrooms to clients with physical challenges and central locations of federal courthouses, compared with state courts distributed throughout California. He noted that federal courts in California have been launching a coordinated effort to dismiss lawsuits that bring in arguments from California’s Unruh rules, causing litigation to “become substantially more difficult and confused.”

“Defendants have been misled into believing that the state court claims no longer have merit, emboldening defenses and driving up the costs of litigation,” Price wrote.

New cases fall nationwide and in California

Filings of website-accessibility cases against businesses dropped dramatically nationwide and in California in the first half of 2022, to the lowest levels in five years, according to Sacramento-based ADA law firm Seyfarth Shaw. The firm attributes this to “increased scrutiny” of accessibility lawsuits.

2021 was a “blockbuster” year for such filings nationwide, the firm said, based on its analysis of federal court records. Such case filings numbered 11,452, with 6,304 in the first half of the year, but that fell 22% to 4,914 in the first half of this year, below 2018 levels and the artificially low 2020 case count because of closed courts in the pandemic.

In California, website-accessibility federal cases against businesses dropped 52% through June of this year, to 1,587 from 3,340 a year earlier, the law firm reported. Potter Handy filings in federal courts in the Golden State amounted to only 397 in the first half, down from 1,729 in the same period last year.

Optimism for federal guidelines on website accessibility

Some watchers of the website accessibility lawsuits nationwide are hoping that recent Department of Justice proposed rulemaking on the issue will help provide more clarity for what’s required. The agency is taking comments through April 2023 on proposed rules for Title II of the ADA, which concerns civic organizations like local government facilities and community venues.

Title III of the act covers private businesses facilities, and case law has pointed to websites as an extension of an enterprise’s physical premises and thus liable for meeting accessibility standards. But it’s hoped that the rulemaking on Title II organizations will lead to more specific guidelines for Title III businesses to help them in legal actions, according to Seyfarth Shaw.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette