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Disability rights activist faces Supreme Court showdown over hotel accessibility lawsuits

The justices will decide whether accessibility "testers" can sue over a lack of information on hotel websites when they have no intention of staying at the hotels in question.
Coast Village Inn and Cottages in Wells, Maine.
Acheson Hotels, which owns the Coast Village Inn and Cottages in Wells, Maine, is fighting a lawsuit by disability rights activist Deborah Laufer over the disclosure of accessibility information on the hotel's website.Google maps

WASHINGTON — Disability rights campaigner Deborah Laufer has filed hundreds of federal lawsuits claiming that hotels fail to disclose accessibility information on their websites, but the Supreme Court on Monday took up a case that could curtail her crusade.

The court agreed to hear an appeal brought by Acheson Hotels, which operates the Coast Village Inn and Cottages in Maine, that argues Laufer does not have legal standing to bring the cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act because she has no intention of staying at the hotels in question.

To have standing, plaintiffs traditionally have to show they have suffered an injury, and Acheson says Laufer has failed to demonstrate that.

Laufer, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, sued in 2020, saying the hotel's website did not identify accessible rooms and failed to provide other relevant information.

A district court judge threw out the lawsuit on standing grounds, but in a ruling last fall, the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived Laufer's claim.

Acheson's lawyers say in court papers that Laufer has filed more than 600 lawsuits targeting small hotels and bed and breakfasts, and that the cost of litigating a case can put defendants into bankruptcy.

"A cottage industry has arisen in which uninjured plaintiffs lob ADA lawsuits of questionable merit, while using the threat of attorney’s fees to extract settlement payments," they added.

Laufer's lawyers counter that the language of the ADA allows for anyone who is disabled and therefore subject to discrimination on that basis to sue if an entity has violated the law.

Hotels rarely comply with the ADA without being put on notice, the lawyers add, and because the law does not impose damages, only Laufer and some other self-appointed "testers" regularly seek to enforce it.

"Without civil rights advocates such as this plaintiff, there would be no enforcement of the ADA," the lawyers wrote in court papers.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments and issue a ruling in its next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2024.