Deborah Laufer sought to dismiss her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court still heard oral arguments on her case. I previously wrote about her case here. Ms. Laufer is confined to a wheel chair. She has accessed websites of hotels and B&B’s for years to see if they satisfy the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA requires that those websites describe the accessibility of the various hotels for persons with disabilities. If those websites do not adequately describe their accessibility features, Ms. Laufer sues them.
As I mentioned previously, Laufer ran into a problem when her lawyer was sanctioned by a U.S. District Court. Ms. Laufer was then concerned that that attorney discipline would affect her appeal. So, she submitted papers indicating she would file no more such lawsuits and wished to withdraw the current appeal.
So, on her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue was standing. Is a person who views a website sufficiently harmed when they find a lack of accessibility information? Ms. Laufer had no intention of staying at each of hundreds of hotels and B&B’s. Can she truly say in court that is harmed? In a Fair Housing Act case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of testers to file suit. That decision in Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U. S. 363 (1982) said testers have standing. But, that case differed slightly. In that case, a black person and a white person both inquired about leasing an apartment. The black person was told directly that he could not rent the apartment. For Justice Thomas, that was enough difference to make the decision in Havens not applicable. Justice Thomas would have ruled against Laufer.
In any event, Justice Barrett wrote the majority opinion finding the matter as moot. In so doing, she noted that Ms. Laufer had filed hundreds of these lawsuits all across the country. She had, said Justice Barrett, single-handedly created a circuit split. Three courts of appeals have found Ms. Laufer to have standing, while another three circuits, including the Fifth Circuit, had found Laufer lacked standing to bring these lawsuits. Justice Barrett’s majority opinion vacates the decision of the First Circuit which had found Laufer did have standing. So, in effect, the Supreme Court decision upholds the district court opinion that dismissed Laufer’s lawsuit.
It is a difficult decision – as most Supreme Court cases are. Ms. Laufer is filling an important role, one not assumed by any governmental agency. Hotels and many other public buildings routinely ignore the physical requirements of the ADA. But, the whole specter of filing lawsuits with little discernible harm is troubling. In fact, the discipline of her attorney supports the narrative that Ms. Laufer was simply engaged in a profit-making enterprise, not in actual civil rights activism. That is a shame, because she filled a real need. Persons with disabilities as a group are least likely to speak up for themselves. They prefer to not make waves. Laufer was their champion, if imperfectly so.
See the decision in Acheson Hotels v. Laufer, No. 22-429 here.