Accessibility Lawsuits

While disability laws struggle to keep up with advances in technology, companies battle it out in court to determine the scope of their legal responsibility to make the web accessible. Here are a few key cases.

National Association of the Deaf (NAD) v. Netflix

In 2010, a suit was brought against Netflix by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), alleging that Netflix was discriminating against deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers because not all their streaming video had closed captions.

The NAD asserted that this online business was a “place of public accommodation” despite lacking a physical location. The NAD also had the backing of the Department of Justice.

This was the first time the ADA had been interpreted to apply to online-only businesses, and specifically online-only video content.

In October of 2012, Netflix decided not to go to court and instead to settle with a legally binding consent decree. They agreed to caption 100% of their video retroactively and moving forward.

Because the case was settled before a court delivered a final ruling, there is room for a difference of opinion on how the ADA applies to only-only businesses.

netflix logo

National Association of the Deaf (NAD) v. Hulu

The NAD pressured Hulu to adopt a formal closed captioning policy for their streaming web video, including Hulu originals.

The plaintiff’s legal team was let by the same attorney that successfully settled the Netflix case on the same issue.

In September, 2016, Hulu reached a settlement with the NAD. They agreed to adhere to the FCC’s standards for caption quality, and to closed caption all full-length English or Spanish video content by September, 2017.

The Hulu logo shown on a laptop screen in a living room.

National Association of the Deaf (NAD) v. Amazon

In October, 2015, Amazon struck a deal with the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) to ensure that Amazon’s library of over 190,000 TV shows and films will get closed captioning.

Amazon Prime Video was already fully captioned, but this agreement tackles Amazon’s archive of Instant Video that wasn’t yet captioned.

New additions to the Amazon Prime video offerings will also have closed captions.

The closed captions on Amazon video must comply with FCC caption quality standards for accuracy, placement, timing, and completeness.

The Amazon smile logo one the side of a buidling

National Association of the Deaf (NAD) v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University

In February 2015, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed suit against both Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, citing violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act for the universities’ failure to provide accurate and comprehensive captioning for online course materials.

Both universities filed a motion to dismiss the case. After the DOJ weighed in on the side of the NAD, the appeals court denied Harvard and MIT’s motions to dismiss, saying that there is adequate precedent in ADA case law for the suit to proceed. As of February 2020, after years of litigation, both the NAD v. Harvard and NAD v. MIT lawsuits have officially been settled by the court of law.

The front of the big dome building on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) v. FedEx Ground Package System, INC. (FedEx Ground)

In 2014, the EEOC sued FedEx for ADA violations because they failed to provide accommodations for deaf or hard-of-hearing employees or job applicants, such as providing American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and closed-captioned training videos during the mandatory initial tour of the facilities and new-hire orientation. In July, 2015, the NAD joined the plaintiff in the litigation.

In January, 2016, the court denied FedEx’s motions to dismiss the case, and it is still pending.

A FedEx worker loading a FedEx delivery truck

Earll v. Ebay

Melissa Earll brought a disability discrimination lawsuit against eBay after she was barred from selling her goods on the site. eBay’s verification system for sellers requires the retrieval and submission of a password from a telephone call. Earll was unable to retrieve the spoken password because she was deaf.

In 2013, the court dismissed her case. Earll appealled, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of eBay in 2015. It argued that the ADA’s Title III does not apply to online-only businesses, and so eBay would not be categorized as a place of public accommodation.

The eBay homepage

DRA v. University of California, Berkeley

Between 2011 and 2013, three undergraduate students from the University of California (UC) Berkeley, took legal action over their school’s inaccessible textbooks and unrealistic accommodation timelines. Instead of going to court, the legal team representing the students took the collaborative approach and successfully engaged in structured negotiations with the university.

The case was ultimately settled. After UC Berkeley was found to be in violation of ADA’s Title III, the administration made substantial changes to their library and print-to-digital conversion process.

The front entrance of a university library